The pandemic within a pandemic

Malawi: unintended consequences

Lengthy school closures to control the spread of the coronavirus have led to a surge in already appalling numbers of teen pregnancies and early marriages

Catherine Julio Funsani, 19, and her 21-year-old husband Maliko Funsani tend to their tobacco on March 7, 2015 in the barn of their home in the village of Fule, Group Village Headman Kamphampha in the area of Chief Mponela in Dowa District, central Malawi, some 70 kms north of the capital Lilongwe. Catherine got married to Maliko in 2011 when she was 15 and he was 18. Malawi is poised to adopt a law banning child marriages in a country which has one of the world’s highest rates of under-age weddings. AFP PHOTO / AMOS GUMULIRA (Photo by AMOS GUMULIRA / AFP)

It’s a cold Monday morning and a normal working day for people employed in the central business district of Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, and not only for staff of essential service institutions such as hospitals and the police. Businesses such as grocery stores and market places are also open, as are regulated and unregulated alcohol sales outlets and video showing rooms, where people go to watch movies. Many of these video showing rooms also sell alcohol, and they have become a haven for young people who have been on an indefinite “holiday” since 20 March this year, when the government closed schools as part of its efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). They are also popular with youth in other high-density areas of Malawi.

The government closed schools even before the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country. Since then, schools have remained closed, which has created another looming health problem. In addition to COVID-19, health experts and community activists say the indefinite school closures have led to a second pandemic; a surge in teenage pregnancies and child marriages. Malawi, one of the most impoverished countries in sub-Saharan Africa, already struggles with high rates of child/early marriage and teen pregnancy, but cases have soared since March. So, as the world struggles to bring COVID-19 under control, Malawi is stuck in the middle of two pandemics. As of 17 August 2020, Malawi had registered a total of 5,125 COVID-19 cases and 162 deaths, but the surge in teenage pregnancies and child marriages during the pandemic is as much a cause for concern.

Malawi’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology says since the closure of schools in March, Malawi has registered 18,000 teen pregnancies among primary school learners and 3,931 among secondary school learners in all of Malawi’s 28 districts. Harvey Chimatiro, executive director of Concerned Youth Organisation, an NGO for young people operating in Blantyre, describes these fi gures as shocking. It is unfortunate, he says, that with the attention given to COVID-19, other important health issues such as youth sexual reproductive health are being neglected. “It’s heartbreaking to note that some parents are even coaxing their girl children to engage in sexual activities or marrying them off in order to alleviate household poverty,” he told Africa in Fact. “There is a need for parents to play an active role, now that young people are not going to school and are probably idle at home. In addition, there should be deliberate messaging of sexual reproductive health issues targeting youths during this time.”

Patson Symon, chairperson of the Machinjiri Chilaweni Youth network, located in the traditional authority of Machinjiri in Blantyre, confirmed that girls in his area had entered into early marriages to alleviate family poverty. Symon himself is one of the youths who have benefited from sexual reproductive health programmes conducted by NGOs in the area. Between March and June, in his capacity as a trained youth leader, Symon referred 13 young people with gonorrhoea to the nearest health facility for treatment. “This is a sign that youths are having unprotected sex. They came seeking counselling and support. That’s when I advised them to seek medical help,” he says. During the same period, Symon told Africa in Fact that 26 early marriages were recorded within his youth network catchment area. Twenty of these were abolished, in collaboration with community-based organisations, traditional leaders and other NGOs.

A woman and her children stand under an umblella in Lilongwe on March 14, 2016. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE

Six couples were not immediately separated, because the girls in the marriages were already pregnant. “A lot of girls from my area are into casual relationships with ‘sugar daddies’ in exchange for money and they are getting infected with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the process,” says Makata area Youth Network chairperson Esther Mambo. “Idle boys are into alcohol and substance abuse and risking their lives engaging in unprotected sex.” Senior Chief Kachindamoto of Dedza, a champion against child marriage in Malawi, says the surge in early marriages and teenage pregnancy during the pandemic is very worrisome, but she believes traditional leaders have a big role to play in finding solutions to the problem. She recommends that traditional leaders work together with NGOs, the social welfare department, Mother Groups (grassroots groups of women whose role it is to assist in rescuing girls from child marriages and keeping them in school), religious leaders and parliamentarians.

“In my area, I have mobilised group village headmen, parents, teachers and NGOs to ensure there is no laxity in the strict child marriage measures (instituted in her area). It has been emphasised that school closures are not a licence to immorality,” she says. Kachindamoto has personally put an end to 5,449 child marriages since she was elevated to chief in February 2004. In the process, she also demonstrated her authority when she suspended 36 chiefs for aiding and accepting child marriages in their respective areas under her jurisdiction. Civil Society for Quality and Basic Education Executive Director Benedicto Kondowe believes that Malawi’s struggle with teenage pregnancy and child marriage has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the country’s poor approach to sexual reproductive health issues.

“We need to abandon unrealistic moral and cultural issues and adopt policies that will make a difference. For instance, how is the policy of providing sexual and reproductive health services such as condoms 100 metres away from schools, for fear that their availability will lead to promiscuous behaviour among learners, helping us? Now look at what is happening,” he says. (Malawi’s Ministry of Health is not permitted to distribute condoms or other contraceptive services on school premises because the Ministry of Education promotes abstinence, but may provide them at least 100 m away from schools.) Kondowe says the high number of teenage pregnancies, despite several NGOs working with youth in the area, is a clear indication of the need to revise the strategies in place to ensure that young girls are not as vulnerable as they are.

“This issue calls for a very serious reflection on how we go about delivering our services and projects to these areas,” he says, “but we do need a joint effort to deal with this problem.” Meanwhile, the national coordinator for adolescents and the youth sexual reproductive health programme in the Ministry of Health, Hans Katengeza, told Africa in Fact that there had been a decline in the number of young people accessing sexual reproductive health services during the pandemic, despite massive awareness of the availability of the services. A Ministry of Health policy brief document titled ‘COVID-19 on Youth Friendly Health Services (YFHS)’, published in July, said the number of young people using these services had declined from a monthly average of 717,622 to just 481,210 across the country.

A woman carries her baby in Lilongwe on March 14, 2016. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE

The document also indicated that some of the most popular services − family planning information and services, condom promotion and provision, and HIV testing and counselling services − declined by 35%, 18% and 40%, respectively, between the months of April and May 2020 as compared to the same period in 2019. “We don’t know if it’s because of confinement, but I believe this is an issue that could also be attributed to other factors, which may also include gender-based violence,” Katengeza noted. He suggested that a multi-sectoral approach was required, with government and CSOs, youth-led organisations and other partners playing their role in order to deal with this issue holistically. Minister of Gender, Children, Community Development and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliyati says she is meeting traditional leaders across Malawi, directing them to dissolve all child marriages in their jurisdictions.

“The girls in those unions should return to school once the schools reopen,” she told Africa in Fact . “Those that are already pregnant should also go back to school after the delivery of their babies. They (traditional leaders) have their own by-laws, which they need to enforce in delivering this directive,” Kaliyati points out, adding that she will be following up on this matter to ensure that it is implemented. In an interview with Africa in Fact, Secretary for Education Chikondano Mussa said: “It’s surprising that this is happening when the children are under the best care of parents and the community. How come this is happening?” Mussa added that finding a solution to this particular social problem did not rest solely with her ministry; the involvement of other government arms was also crucial.

“If you dig deeper, you will find that these girls are being impregnated by older men who are married, the so-called ‘blessers’, so there is a need to take the perpetrators to task because these are minors who are supposed to be in school. This we can’t do alone,” she says. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education is working on finalising a strategy on how to safely reopen schools in September. “But we need assistance from other government sectors in order to bring the perpetrators to book as well as to deal holistically with this issue,” Mussa said.


Josephine Chinele is currently a Fellow (Biomedical HIV Prevention Advocate) at the Pakachere Institute of Health and Development Communication in Blantyre, Malawi. A multi-award winning journalist, she has worked as a news, features and investigative journalist for newspapers, radio and television platforms in Malawi and South Africa. She has been awarded several health journalism fellowships in the area of HIV and AIDS, health and human rights.

Reporting from the margins

Women in media: glass ceilings

Too many African women media professionals find their advancement frustrated by traditional cultural roles and gender stereotypes

Edyth Kambalame
Photo: Josephine Chinele

Zambian journalist Ruth Kanyanga Kamwi has been in the journalism trade for 20 years and is all too familiar with the particular challenges that African women media professionals face from their own colleagues working in what is already a hostile environment. At times, she notes, women have to work twice as hard as men to be considered for top jobs. “Female journalists are made to believe that getting a job is a privilege and not their right,” she tells Africa in Fact. “[So] they resort to all sorts of things, in some cases, exchanging sex for jobs. Sometimes those already in the system are expected to ‘drink coffee’ with the boss if they want to be recommended for promotion, despite their qualifications and experience. But again, certain professionals don’t do that. They value their integrity and reward based on meritocracy.” Kamwi has strived to beat the system. “I have tried my best to stay out of trouble. Challenges have presented themselves differently at different levels…

Balancing the roles of a mother, wife and working as a journalist is not easy, more especially if I have to work weekends and knock off at odd hours.” In addition to their struggle to balance work with domestic responsibilities, something with which women the world over are all too familiar, African women in the media industry say they are also forced to contend with deeply entrenched gender stereotypes in newsrooms, which they describe as “men’s clubs”. And while the African media landscape may differ from region to region, country to country, the personal experiences of women interviewed for this article reveal that traditional cultural roles in general spill over into newsrooms and the work environment, leaving women to believe they will have little opportunity to thrive. Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chairperson Theresa Ndanga reveals that being both young and female meant it took a lot of courage for her to prove her worth when she joined the media. “It was always difficult to get stories from senior male sources simply because of my physical looks and by being female,” she recalls.

“In some instances, even when I was the editor and I went to interview someone, before the interview would start, sources would ask why my media house decided to send me and not my bosses. I would say ‘I am the boss’. I would only win their respect during the course of the interview, and most would commend me afterwards.” Ndanga says she has also experienced sexual harassment. “Sometimes male sources made sexual advances, which I found inappropriate, and [it] often ended up spoiling the work relationship as they didn’t like the fact that I never gave in to the pressure.” But Ndanga believes women are partly to blame for these attitudes because they do not project themselves as being capable leaders. When women are not promoted, she thinks, they rarely demand to know why. “Our male counterparts demand what they want and can even negotiate for the salary they want,” she says. “Women rarely do this. But I’m glad that some women, in other parts of the world, are beginning to demand similar positions of those that men occupy and similar salaries.

You may remember the BBC incident where a female employee resigned because she wasn’t getting pay equivalent to her male counterparts. I hope this attitude spreads to other parts of the world.” The International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF)’s Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media, published in 2010 after a two-year study, found that in sub-Saharan Africa women’s under-representation in the news media was especially pronounced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi and Zimbabwe, where women’s total representation was 15, 27 and 27% respectively. By contrast, the study found, women journalists in South Africa slightly exceeded the number of men. Women’s representation at news reporting levels was low, except for senior management, where half the number were women. Senior management included editors in chief, managing editors, and bureau chiefs.

The IWMF report noted that women were severely under-represented in Malawian media, where their absence was most noticeable at junior (14.1%) and senior professional levels (16.2%), which contain the core teams of news reporters, correspondents, producers and anchors. The chairperson of the Association of Women in Media (Awome) in Malawi, Edyth Kambalame, believes that African women in the media are not recognised for top media management positions even when they have the appropriate qualifications and experience mainly because of negative stereotypes that lead to the belief that women are incapable of leadership. “We live in a largely patriarchal society that views men as natural leaders while women have to constantly prove their worth, even when they may be equally or even more qualified than their male competitors,” she told Africa in Fact. “If you analyse the portrayal of women in our media, you will see that women are still the face of poverty. “Now, how can this poor woman be deserving of space at the decision making table?

That is why the media industry has largely relegated women to less influential positions. While some progress is being made, it is still slow and more needs to be done to ensure equal gender representation at the top.” Kambalame adds, however, “I like to think that each profession has its own challenges. But for journalism in particular, I believe it’s important that women start to be recognised and treated as being equal to their male counterparts. There is need to create opportunities and an enabling environment for women to rise and occupy positions of influence in the media.” Veteran Kenyan journalist Joyce Chimbi agrees that the underrepresentation of women in managerial positions is a reflection of the systematic gender exclusion in all aspects of our society. “Gender stereotypes have locked women out of top-level management through the perception that they are not well-equipped to lead, [while] women themselves perceive themselves as not well-equipped to lead,” Chimbi says.

“All these issues have created barriers to access opportunities to gain the job experience they need to lead.” In Kenya, research reveals that unlike elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, there are more women in newsrooms than men. An African women and child feature service study done by Kenyan Media and Women in Political News (2013) found that, although there are more women than men in media houses, 32% of stories on television, radio, and newspapers were reported by female journalists, as compared to 53% by male journalists. Women journalists were more dominant as news anchors (74%) than men (22%). The statistics reveal that women are often marginalised from the hard news, the news that “matters”, or relegated to soft news. They remain invisible, even though they exist in large numbers, and there is a perception that women can only thrive covering subjects such as fashion and food reviews. Defining hard news, such as politics, is the preserve of men. Chimbi agrees. “At times this is due to the nature of the job,” she says.

“Women have reproductive, productive and caregiving jobs that often get in the way. To get a good hard news story, women must be unencumbered by all these other roles and avail themselves even late at night for ‘boy club’ meetings where these stories play out. In my experience as a female journalist, I have encountered gender stereotypes; certain stories are still the preserve of men. There is implicit bias in the media whereby if you pitch a story, say on politics, the economy, terrorism, a male colleague is much more likely to be assigned the story.” She notes that society is also more welcoming to male journalists, that they are taken more seriously than women. Chimbi also points out that fewer women in top leadership means that the workplace is still not fully alive to the challenges unique to women. “For instance,” she says, “at times biological challenges can have an impact on a woman’s productivity such as a heavy period, cramps, a miscarriage, problems with a new contraceptive that a male leader might not understand.” Despite these challenges, universities and colleges continue to produce female graduate journalists.

Blantyre International University, for instance, graduates 15 female journalists a year. Lecturer Nelson Nyirenda says that workplace discrimination demotivates women and results in reduced work output. “In the workplace, men have a tendency to look down on women,” he says. “They think women cannot do anything significant, which is totally wrong.” African women in media agree their profession is still by and large a “men’s club”. But given that the public gets much of its information from the media, it’s frustrating to note that women are marginalised from decision-making about the reporting of critical issues that directly affect people’s lives – be it in areas of health and education or the economy and politics. The media have a huge influence on opinion in our society, and if they do not promote gender inclusivity the status quo will likely remain unchanged. Real changes in the roles of women in society, and the place of women and girls in our culture more generally, should start with the media.

Josephine Chinele is currently a Fellow (Biomedical HIV Prevention Advocate) at the Pakachere Institute of Health and Development Communication in Blantyre, Malawi. A multi-award winning journalist, she has worked as a news, features and investigative journalist for newspapers, radio and television platforms in Malawi and South Africa. She has been awarded several health journalism fellowships in the area of HIV and AIDS, health and human rights.
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