Iron Lady Bwananyambi: A true Childrens’ Activist

By Sellina Kainja, Blantyre, Malawi

“Takulandirani kuno kwamfumuyayikulu Bwananyambi. Kuchima kekwaa zitsogoleri amenea malimbikit samamphunziro aanaachitsikana. Tilindi ma Bylaws amenesakulorakholo kukakami za mwana wamkazi kusiyasukulu kapena kumuka kamizakupitakubanja.

[Welcome to Chief Bwananyambi, the home of leaders who encourage girls’ education. We have By-laws that do not allow parents to force their girl child to stop going to school or force them to get married]”.

Photo: Courtesy.

These are the words inscribed on a road side signpost(above) that welcomes you to Chief Bwananyambi’s home in Mangochi South. The signpost, erected just about a meter from the main road, is both a welcoming message to those visiting the place for the first and a stern warning to the Bwananyambi community members that depriving girls of their right to education and stealing their childhood by marrying them off at young age is not allowed and will be met with stiff punishment.

A report by UNICEF, State of the World’s Children 2016, posits that Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with approximately 1 in 2 girls married by the age of 18.

According to UNICEF, many factors interact to place a girl at risk of marriage, including poverty, the perception that marriage will provide ‘protection’, family honour, social norms and customary or religious laws that condone the practice.

Chief Bwananyambi, echoed UNICEF's sentiments but added that girls from her area are coerced into early marriages by men who trek to South Africa looking for piece work. This is so common, that those who marry such men are envied. But she is determined to put a stop to this practice.

Chief Bwananyambi, the champion who encourages girls’ education. Photo: Courtesy

Born Saujiya Phande many years ago, Chief Bwananyambi is a tall and stout woman with a still voice—a voice of reason that steadily breaking age-old norms of stopping girls from going to school in preference for early marriages. She is the voice that echoes in her area reminding everyone of the need to respect women and girls by according them the necessary environment that enables them to realise their full potential and dreams.

Hers is a still voice that chides the patriarchal society she grew up in against objectifying a girl child. Just like her physic, she is tough, courageous and determined.

Her personal story is what inspired her to be the champion for girl education and use whatever she has in her power to protect the girl child from early marriage and ensure that girls just like boys, are able to reach their full potential.

Bwananyambi recalls how she was married at a young age because back in the day it was a norm and it was fashionable. Parents saw no problem in marrying off girls at a young age. In fact, girls were groomed to become good wives and not good career women.

“I have this anger with me. I do not feel good about the fact that I never had an opportunity to go to school. After I was elevated to a chief, I vowed to use whatever was in powers to promote girls’ education,” she said while emphasizing that people her area, the majority, lack basic education. This worries her a lot.

“The position I have as a chief is respected by people. A good leader is one who is able to intelligently articulate issues affecting the people of his or her area. To do that one need some form of education. Again, it is equally important to have subjects that are enlightened. I want my people to be educated,” she said.

She strongly believes that by educating a girl child, you educate her family and the nation.

“Growing up I never her female role models that I could look up to and dream to become like them. I want girls in my area to be role models for their families and children. In that we will have a generation of girls aspires to be educated.

To achieve this in a society that commodifies and looks down on a girl child was never going to be a walk in the park. It would require more than just aspirations and words but decisive action. Hence, the formulation of the by-laws that govern and guide the conduct of all her subjects.

With the laws read out to all of her subjects, Bwananyambi is ending child marriages and educating girls. According to Bwana Nyambi’s by-laws were formulated through consultation with all members of the community.

“I did this deliberately to avoid people thinking that I am being harsh on them. But since they made the laws, they cannot say that. Some chiefs even say that I can dethrone them if they fail to implement the laws."

A copy of the By-laws. Photo: Courtesy.

According to Bwananyambi’s by-laws, no child, girl or boy, should be seen loitering around during school time. If found, parents will pay K55000 [US$75].

If parents marry off a girl below the age of 18, parents from both sides, girl and boy’s side, are fine K35000 [US$48] while a girl who is not yet 18 years old if she is impregnated by a man older than her, the matter is immediately reported to the police. The case is treated as rape. On top of that, the man is fine K70,000 [US$96] plus community service.

Religious leaders are not allowed to bless any marriage where the girl is below the age of 18. If found on the wedding day, the wedding is cancelled.

Bwananyambi says: “There is no one in my area who can claim not to know these laws. They know them and they know the consequences of breaking the laws.”

So far, she says she has successfully ended two marriages while many others are pending final conclusion.

Bwananyambi doesn’t just end marriages, she supports rescued girls rescued through school, alongside other girls who cannot afford to pay their school fees. One of the girls she has been paying school fees for is now at Mzuzu University.

With K350,000 (US$481) from her income, she started Bwana Nyambi Education Fund (BEF). With this fund, she has been able to send 87 girls rescued from marriage and those who dropped out of school due to pregnancy; back to school.

Under her belt are two education projects: Go to school—targeting every child in the community and Back to school—targeting those rescued from marriage and those that dropped out of school.

“I believe that there can never be any meaningful development in my community if people are not educated,” says Bwananyambi adding that she wants to leave a good legacy—an educated community that is able to protect girl children from abuses.

Her main worry is lack of enough funds to assist all those that come to her for assistance. “So many girls come to me for help but I am unable to help them all. It pains me. I wish someone gave me a push, financially to be able to assist these girls.”

Out of the 13 chiefs in Mangochi South, chief Bwananyambi is the only female chief. But, she says that doesn’t intimidate her.

“They never look down on me. When I speak, they listen.”

In February 2017, Parliament amended the Constitution and raised the age of marriage from 15 (with parental consent) to 18 years old for boys and girls. The President signed the constitutional amendment into law in April 2017.

The move brought the Constitution in line with the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill adopted in February 2015, which set the minimum age of marriage at 18.

Resolving legal inconsistencies is an important step towards protecting girls from child marriage but more concerted efforts are needed.