NKANDO, Malawi (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cecilia Amos was just 16 when she fell pregnant. Her partner promised to marry her but instead he left after she gave birth.
That was a year ago and, unable to continue her schooling in the small town of Nkando 45 kms (28 miles) southeast of Malawi’s commercial capital Blantyre, she dropped out.
“My parents were angry at me, of course, but later on they accepted the situation,” said Amos, the third of seven children.
Had her partner not left, Amos would have joined Malawi’s ranks of young brides, which are among the highest in the world. The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF says 9 percent of Malawian girls are married by 15, and one in two by 18.
U.N. Women says the practice carries significant costs as it “condemns girls to a vicious cycle of poverty”, forces them to miss out on school, and puts them at greater risk of violence.
It also raises the chance of falling pregnant. The National Statistics Office says nearly 30 percent of girls aged 15-19 are either pregnant or have given birth. Teenagers comprise up to 30 percent of maternal deaths in Malawi.
All of which is why the government was widely praised last year for amending a law to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 from 15.
Amos eventually returned to school after a charity called Yoneco - Youth Net and Counselling - stepped in. Now in the eighth grade, her ambition is to become a nurse.
“They approached me through a community support group and they encouraged me to come back (to school). I go (home) and breastfeed during break time,” she said.
Yoneco is one of a number of charities working with the government, local communities and village chiefs to get young women like Amos, many of them underage brides, back to school.
To date, said Ellen Mvula, Yoneco’s project officer, it has helped more than 530 underage girls get out of marriages. Ninety of them have returned to school with that outcome more likely if their parents are supportive.
The charity also helps to prosecute cases of underage marriage and statutory rape, as well as child labor.
Other charities do similar work, including the Malawi Girl Guides Association and Save the Children. What is less clear is the success of projects because there are no official figures.
McKnight Kalanda, who heads the child affairs department at the ministry of gender, children, disability and social welfare, said figures from charities showed about 5,000 under-18s were removed from wedlock last year.
The program, he said, is in its early days and needs more work - not least in determining the numbers rescued, for which a government database is being built.
There are other challenges too, including people lying about children’s ages and not reporting cases. Failure to prosecute perpetrators is also an issue.
“In summary, the major gap is in the law enforcement,” he said.
Jessie Kabwila, an academic and opposition parliamentarian who worked to change the marriage law, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone that it would take time to see results.
But, she said, the revised law would do little to fix a bigger issue.
“The problem with our society is patriarchy,” she said, adding that if the issue were poverty-driven then that would not explain why only underage girls - not boys - were being married.
“Girls are convinced they were meant for marriage and not (to be) bread-winners,” she said.
Compelling children to return to school was the right way to go about tackling the problem, she said.
“They should focus on their potential and not on marriage.”
She said the 2017/2018 budget reduction of 10 billion Malawian kwacha ($14 million) for the ministry of gender was a “reversal in the fight” for girl-child welfare and raised doubts about the government’s commitment to implement the amended law.
Maxwell Matewele, the head of Eye of the Child, a children’s charity working on underage marriage, said most rescue projects were ineffective because the government did not properly enforce the law, including requiring that all children attend school.
“Child education should never be an option but rather a must,” said Matewele. “The education act ... is very clear. All children should be in class. No child should ever be forced but (they should be) supported and encouraged to be in class.”
Yet that can be difficult in practice, not least for youngsters going through difficult times.
After 16-year-old Stella Byson’s parents divorced, her mother died and she was sent to live with her grandmother.
But the older woman struggled to support her granddaughter, and so Byson decided having a boyfriend would make matters easier. At 15 she married him and dropped out of school.
Support from the community, her teachers and another charity meant Byson last year extricated herself from marriage and got back to school. Like Amos, she wants to be a nurse.
Yoneco’s Mvula said matters do not always resolve themselves in that way.
“Our project does not have the budget for school fees and uniforms and other basic facilities ... (and) because most of them had left because they needed support from the man - so they get married again,” said Mvula.