Martha is a shy, yet intelligent, 12-year-old girl. This year, she was supposed to earn her primary school leaving certificate (PSLC). Her teachers believed she would make it to high school, as she had been the best student in her class since the first grade. Last school term, she was also at the top of her class.
Bursting with confidence, she eagerly presented her exam report card to her father. Like any other child who has done extremely well in class, Martha was expecting to be showered with praise. But that wasn't to be; her father passively gazed at the piece of paper and folded it into his pocket.
What Martha didn't know was that her father had already found a suitor for her, and that within the next few days, she would be the new housewife of a man old enough to be her grandfather. And for Martha, despite her excellent academic record, this was to be her last term in school.
In Nsanje, where Concern Worldwide is working, this same scenario has abruptly cut short the dreams of many young girls. Some 12 percent of all females in the country are aged between six and 13 years, and it is estimated that 74 percent of the population here live below the poverty line.
Poverty and traditional customs allow parents to marry off their daughters when they think they have come of age. Since the suitor pays a bride price, the trend is now that the younger the girl, the higher the bride price.
Like Martha, many young girls in Nsanje have been caught in this vicious trap. Their dreams, hopes and aspirations have been destroyed by these negative cultural practices or by the pervasive daughter-with-cash bartering.
Negative cultural practices, which unfortunately, are widespread, have been the major contributing factor in preventing girls from receiving an education. For instance, it is believed that girls will gain respect if they marry early and have children.
In Malawi, approximately 17 percent of girls drop out of school as a result of forced marriages, and schools are not safe for girls due to sexual abuse by male teachers and men at large.
In extreme cases, the girls are subjected to the "tsempho" belief. Parents will have their daughters married young as they fear that they will become pregnant outside marriage and have an abortion. This, according to the tsempho belief, will bring death to the family.
The situation has been going on for some time but not without its consequences. Currently, Nsanje is one of the districts in Malawi where the drop-out rate for girls is far below the national average.
Despite the prevalence of the problem, few people have come out in the open to criticize these customs. Concern Worldwide has been holding meetings with community leaders and education officials in the district to highlight these problems. We are in the process of drafting an education program that seeks to change the prevailing views on education for girls.
Results from the awareness meetings held so far reveal that communities are now aware that educating girls is equally important to educating boys. Now there has been a call for urgent action from all sectors of the Nsanje society, something which will help to finally turn the situation around.
The overall goal of Concern Worldwide's five year educational program in Malawi is to improve access to quality education -- and to complete the primary education -- of 18,736 children, primarily girls and those most vulnerable, in 25 schools. This program is new, but the need is great, and we know that it will result in huge transformations in the lives of girls and the most vulnerable children, who deserve futures full of choices.