I’ve seen a lot of African schoolgirls this week, like this beautiful girl above. They’re vivacious, energetic, sweet. I can picture these kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, and my heart aches for them and for their families. Particularly disturbing are the reports that some have already been sold as child brides to Islamic militants. This deplorable practice is unfortunately very common. In fact, approximately every three seconds, a girl becomes a child bride.In Malawi, approximately 50 percent of all girls are married by 18; nine percent are married by 15. A child bride often stops going to school to become a servant to her husband, and she’s more likely to divorce, be widowed, or catch the HIV virus due to harmful traditional practices.
Why does this happen? Sometimes a father offers up his daughter for marriage to pay off a debt or earn a dowry, without the daughter having any say. Or a girl may be encouraged to sleep with a man to please him, and then she gets pregnant and feels forced to marry him.
A marriage bill has been written that would increase the legal age from 15 to 18, and President Banda pledged her support for it earlier in her term. But with the upcoming elections, the bill has been tabled.
So with Malawi’s girls on our brains, we’re anxious for today’s meeting in Blantyre with the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET). Founded in 2008 by a woman named Faith Phiri (pictured below with Colleen), this NGO works hard to support and educate girls around Malawi, particularly vulnerable, marginalized ones. Through the work of several grassroots programs, they aim to eliminate abuse and violence in girls’ homes, build self-esteem and confidence, and empower girls to make their own choices. Colleen first read about GENET’s great work in this NPR story. She hopes to find a way for Watering Malawi to partner with them on water projects directly impacting girls. In our meeting with their team, we discussed school bathrooms that were in terrible conditions, as well as programs like Keeping Girls In School. One aspect of this program is the distribution of free, washable pads to girls so they don’t have to use old rags, torn mattress foam, and even banana leaves anymore. Many misconceptions surround menstruation, and girls often skip school during that time because they’re embarrassed, uncomfortable, and their bathrooms are insufficient. By finding small solutions for problems like this one, GENET is changing girls’ lives, one by one.
You also might’ve heard of the “initiation camps” that occur in mostly rural areas, where elders in the community teach children false information about engaging in sexual activity at a young age. GENET has begun work to offer an alternative summer camp that teaches girls the truth about their rights and avoiding violence and abuse.
In the non-profit world, it’s a documented reality that if you give a man a dollar, he’ll spend it on himself. But give a woman a dollar, and she’ll spend it on her family. By empowering women to claim their rights, understand and embrace their bodies, and share their knowledge, you change the future for everyone.