By Gregory Gondwe
It is early in the morning in the squatter and hilly area of Masasa Township which is part of Mzuzu City in Northern Malawi.
Edison Kamanga and his wife, Mercy Kalambo both aged 19, are parents of two children. They got married at the age of 16.
Deeply in love at that time, the two thought love would conquer all. They dreamt of a life in abundance, with all their necessities at hand.
But life has presented its reality to them; the two live in a one bed roomed grass thatched house. They depend on piece works for survival. At times, their children eat once a day or sleep on empty stomachs.
The young husband Edison now confesses that early marriages are full of problems.
He points an accusing finger at the media that it never came to his rescue in the first place because he never realized that life would be full of gloom and doom.
“How I wish the media especially the radio stations brought programmes that really connected with us; I have experienced hard life which has made me realize that an early marriage is a torture,” says Kamanga.
“We have experienced a multitude of problems and we are now used to them. What I used to do before make me regret that I wished I had lived my life better because I think my approach to these issues was really childish.”
He says now that it happened, there is nothing he can do apart from opening a new leaf and starts another life again, as the media continuously teaches.
His equally young wife Mercy says she is currently suffering the burden of taking responsibilities that are beyond her age, due to lack of attention to what the media used to reach her with.
Unlike her husband, Mercy says the media informed her of the dangers of early marriages, but there were other forces that pushed her into the current situation:
“Through the media, especially radios, I used to listen to either explanation that we should not be rushing into early marriages while still young or having sexual partners, because that will eclipse our future,” she recalls.
She says whenever she could hear such advice she could believe it, but the moment she left home, the advice would also evaporate from her mind.
“On radios I hear women advising us that once you get married while still young you still need to hope for the future and taking the opportunity of going back to school,” she says; “At least this advice is timely.”
Shupie Munthali aged 19, also from the same area as Mercy says she had an opportunity to complete her secondary education at Karonga Girls Secondary School, but was enticed into marriage by a married man.
While she says she has herself to blame for her problems, Shupie thinks this would have been different if the media had done more to reach out to as many girls as possible with advisory messages on the dangers of early marriages.
“My wish is that journalists should visit schools and talk and interview girl pupils and students. They should be encouraging them to listen to radio programmes that advise them,” she says adding that they have learnt a bitter lesson.
Early pregnancies are on the increase in the Malawi’s Northern region, at least if statistics at the region’s Mzuzu Central Referral Hospital are anything to go by.
The Hospital receives five to six teenage pregnancies on a daily basis resulting into two to three deaths of mothers and five to six deaths of the babies within the same period.
The health facility’s HIV/AIDS section, which is known as the rainbow Clinic, treats around 320 cases of pregnant teenagers on monthly basis. Out of this figure, an average of 150 is found HIV positive.
Mbumba Chitowe Nurse Midwife Technician at the facility’s Antenatal Department says the media is encouraging the youth to be visiting their youth friendly facility.
“I think the media is trying to help us because nowadays we have a lot of the youths coming here for the services that we offer,” she says.
She, however, states that the media should still take a further step.
“In fact they should be coming here as well as in the communities regularly so that they can compare the two scenarios and advice accordingly on how best we can work with the communities to try to help them more,” she says.
But another Nurse Midwife Technician Linda Kalambo says the media needs to do more.
“The media should help us sensitize the community on the problems that we have on teenage pregnancies. When the teenagers come to the labour ward or the maternity it means they are already a problem and all we have is to ensure that they or the babies do not die during delivery,” she said adding that the media has to take a preventive measure.
Such experiences have prompted the mushrooming of several organizations which are assisting the youths in these situations.
However, the organizations also believe they cannot do enough without the media.
Hippo Honde is Executive Director of Youth Right Care and Support Foundation – YOCAFO which is based in Ekaiweni in Mzimba still in the northern part of Malawi. He says the media needs to do more.
“The media is doing something but not at the extent that we expect because you know most of those that are concerned live in rural areas where media practitioners have problems in reaching out to these areas,” says Honde.
He says this is where he can confidently declare that at a certain degree the media is not doing enough in covering such issues.
Girls with a Vision, a Mzuzu City based organization says most girls are not aware of their health rights and the media unfortunately is also not well conversant with the details.
Executive Director of Girls with a Vision Sophie Munthali says it is not the fault of the media that the situation is like it is.
“We cannot blame the media, it is our role together – NGOs and the media – if we start finger pointing then we will waste time,” she says. “The media should also come up with their different programmes on how they can engage NGOs and the youth to act as a preventive measure; I think that’s what the other role for the media is all about.”
Robert and Pushpa Jamieson are media trainers and consultants with Population Reference Bureau – PRB.
Robert says if the youth are complaining that the media is not doing enough then there is no smoke without fire.
“If that’s the impression out there, then basically the fact of the matter is that the media is not covering issues of population, certainly not of early marriage as much as they should,” he says.
He said they have since intensified training media practitioners to improve the situation.
“We have are trying to make aware to the media that there is much that we as a media can do,” says Jamieson who says the training is intensive.
“Journalists are taught that first of all, it is important to get all the facts; and to get all the facts they have got to be able to go out and speak to the people that can give them the statistics and data that is important to write the story that create right information,” he explains.
Even when the journalists are being trained across the country, Pushpa says the media is supposed to be equipped so that child marriages like one of Edison and Mercy should be avoided.
Wanangwa Mtawali works for a privately owned Joy Radio and he thinks the Malawi media is doing enough and it remains the responsibility of the youth to use the information.
“I think as media we may not accept the fact that we are not doing enough, but perhaps the truth of the matter is that they are certain issues that may happen which do not come to our attention,” explains Mtawali.
But on second thought he adds: “As a reporter sometimes I cannot be in a position to be everywhere at the same time.”
On another hand Edith Kayira a journalist working for state owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) says there is room for improvement:
“As journalists I believe we have a responsibility to civic educate the rural masses on the need to prevent early marriages.”
She further explains:”But as far as sensitization campaign awareness is concerned we are still lagging behind in terms of reporting on such kind of issues.”
Even when the journalists are being trained across the country, Pushpa Jamieson says the media is supposed to be equipped so that child marriages like one of Edison and Mercy should be avoided.
“The media can never say they have done enough about this particular issue of early marriages; we can now make sure that the stories and articles that are coming out have got more information, they are more well researched,” she says.
She says the stories also needs to be attractive to the youth by ensuring that sometimes such articles have a human face put to it in order to make a difference.
Perhaps it is high time that the media increased its scope in covering issues that would really help the youth to stop engaging in premarital sex which is not only booming the population but also increasing poverty levels in Malawi.