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On her 16th birthday, Yensen Nyirenda was getting ready to be married.  Yensen’s marriage was hastily arranged after her family discovered that she was pregnant. As per local customs, she had to go and live with her husband. 

When she was 15, Yensen fell in love with a boy, aged 17. Their flirtation soon led to her becoming pregnant. During the first days of Yensen’s marriage, all seemed to be well. However, a few months later, things took an ugly turn. Her husband started physically abusing her.

“His change of character was so sudden,” says the now 18-year-old mother of one, “He would come home drunk and beat me saying I should go back to my parents.”

Despite the presence of enabling laws and policy stopping child marriage, almost half of the girls in Malawi marry before their 18th birthday.  ©UNFPA/Malawi/Luis Tato

Yensen’s husband doesn’t have any reliable occupation and survives on doing menial labour. With no stable income, and piling pressure to take care of his new wife, he started drinking alcohol excessively. 

When she had had enough, Yensen made a decision to go back to her parents’ home. But her in-laws stopped her from leaving. They had paid a bride price for her.

“In our culture, it is a disgrace to the family and community at large, to walk away from marriage when you are a girl or woman,” she says, adding, “You are treated as an outcast or a person of loose morals that’s why I decided to stay.

Early marriages and gender based violence

The beating and verbal abuse continued for months. Word started spreading in the village on the abuse Yensen was suffering. The news reached the ears of a Spotlight Initiative mentor and a mother group in the area.
Together, with a team from social welfare department, they visited Yensen and had a meeting her in-laws and husband. The team stressed that Yensen was too young to be married and it constituted a crime to keep her as someone’s wife.

Scared of the prospect of being arrested, her in-laws allowed her to go back to her parents’ house. 

“Going back home was a tough decision because my father and mother divorced and I was staying with my step mother,” she says. “I knew my father wasn’t happy with my marriage because he really wanted me to continue with education.” 

Learning the hard way.

Now, Yensen is back in school. In the afternoon, she takes part in the safe space sessions, implemented by the Spotlight Initiative, in her village.  Safe spaces are places where women and girls can safely receive information and access services that promote healing and empowerment.

Safe spaces are empowering girls to make informed decisions. ©UNFPA/Malawi/Luis Tato

However, despite having moved on with her life, it hasn’t been an easy ride juggling between being a mother and a student. Also, her peers at school think she should be home taking care of her child.

“At one point, I decided to go to another school, which is far from our village,” says Yensen, who wants to be nurse. “However, my mentor at the safe space counselled me against the idea. She said I should not always be running away from my problems but look for ways on how to deal with them.”

Spotlight, helping end child marriages 
Yensen story is one of the many happening in Mzimba district. Last year, Mzimba South District Social Welfare Office managed to withdraw 188 children from child marriages out of the 320 verified child marriages in the district.

And Spotlight Initiative mentors have been working with government officials helping withdraw young girls from early marriages. 

“We are glad for the support we are receiving from the Spotlight Initiative,” says Dennis Gondwe, Community child protection worker in Mzukuzuku, Mzimba District. “Working with the mentors, we have managed to withdraw hundreds of young girls from early marriages. 

“And many are back in school and also attending safe space sessions where they are getting knowledge to help them make informed decisions in their lives.”

Gondwe: Spotlight Initiative has helped us rescue many girls from child marriages. ©UNFPA/Malawi/Joseph Scott

Led by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Safe Space Model forms part of activities under the Spotlight Initiative being implemented by the United Nations, the Government of Malawi, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and other partners, with support from the European Union (EU).

The model aims to increase the capacity of mentors on safe space mentoring, for greater uptake of sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence services.

Joseph Scott, Communications Analyst