The 13-year-old struggles to free herself from the grip of her parents and a few other relatives. They are too strong, however, and soon she is pinned to the ground. They watch as an elderly businessman subdues and rapes her. Her parents have threatened to kill her if she dares return home. Confused and helpless, she watches her relations bid farewell to the smiling businessman. He has just sealed a deal making the child his wife. Some people would call it rape sanctioned by parents - a lifetime of it.
It turns out that the 'marriage' had been arranged as payment for the 4,000 kwacha (US$1=121.9 kwacha) that her parents owed the man. The two parties had agreed that the old man should have sex with their daughter and even marry her if he so wished. The schoolgirl had escaped the old man earlier and fled back home, where she begged her parents to let her continue going to school. She was forcibly returned to the man's home, and this time her parents made sure that she would stay.
The custom of exchanging daughters in lieu of outstanding debts is as old as time among the communities living in Iponga, Songwe and Ngana in northern Malawi, though it is practiced to a lesser extent throughout the country. Known locally as 'kupimbira', the practice has seen girls aged between three and 16 being sold off to men as old as 60 in exchange for cattle or as repayment of debts.
Once the transaction has been done, the girl involved moves from her parents' home to that of her 'buyer'. If she is too young, her new 'owner' might wait for her to mature before she assumes her 'marital obligations'.
Kupimbira was initially meant to enhance friendship between families, who would arrange for their children to marry. It also applied where a young man eloped with someone's daughter. The man's parents would offer payment to the wronged family because communities here believed that it was taboo to return home once a girl had entered a man's house. Other families offered their daughters to witchdoctors in lieu of payment for treatment. Whatever the case, the girl's feelings and human rights simply did not count.
The first to raise concern about this custom was the women's guild at a meeting of the Livingstonia Synod's Church and Society Programme in 2002. Jacobs Nkhambule, the deputy programme director, said local residents had been reluctant to speak about kumpibira. Their unwillingness to open up was probably triggered by a government ban last year, leading to fears that they could be arrested if they admitted knowing anything of the practice.
Nkhambule cited the case of Rahab Msukwa, 17, whose father arranged a marriage with Willy Kalambo, 69, after he failed to pay for a few head of cattle. In another instance, a man from Iponga in northern Malawi had collected up to 14 girls through kupimbira. A report of the Church and Society Programme says such violations continue to take place because the people here are ignorant of human rights. "If people, especially parents, became aware of human rights, they would be able to appreciate the rights of others, including those of girls. This would help reduce the prevalence of kupimbira," says the report.
Not leaving anything to chance, the church has mounted a campaign to sensitize villagers on the need to end the practice. Posters used in the campaign bear messages such as: "Girls are crying. Forcing us into early or arranged marriages is a violation of our rights. We need a good future."
The Malawi Human Rights Commission says kupimbira has resurfaced among the Nyakyusa and Ngonde peoples in the remote northern area bordering Tanzania and Mozambique, possibly due to the devastating famine that ravaged the region. Girls attempting to resist these forced marriages are threatened with death or a curse known locally as chighume. "Such serious violations of human rights increase the chances of contracting HIV/AIDS and traumatize the girls," says a 2003 report of the commission.
Malawi's constitution outlaws forced marriages and discourages the marriage of children under 15. But there is little evidence of prosecutions arising from kupimbira. Baxton Mpando, a deputy secretary in the ministry of education, says his ministry has received no complaints about children being withdrawn from school because of the custom. "In any case, even if we received such complaints, there is nothing we can do about it," says Mpando. "Our role is limited to providing and facilitating education. We cannot go around punishing those who do not attend classes."
Elder Patson Kalinga from Karonga denies, however, that kupimbira is still in practice. He argues that it is increasingly difficult to convince women and girls to accept arranged marriages; many would rather go into prostitution to flee that kind of bondage than stay at home. He says nothing of the fate of those barely into their puberty. They might as well be classified as lost children who have fallen between the cracks of a social system that has no consideration for the reproductive health or education of girls on the verge of adulthood.
By arrangement with Women's Feature Service