Rescued From a Child Marriage, This Malawian Girl Returns to School

Speeches Shim

USAID Education Malawi
Halima Robert, right, joined first lady and Let Girls Learn champion Michelle Obama and her colleagues from other countries for a New York event.
Despite the odds, Halima Robert wins her freedom
“I met other girls in similar situations like mine. We encouraged each other to work hard in school.”

March 2017—The small Southern African country of Malawi has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage: Most girls are married before the age of 18. Just 16 percent of girls complete primary school.

Halima Robert experienced poverty firsthand. After losing her mother when she was 7, Robert and the rest of her family moved in with her widowed grandmother. Life in Machinga, a district in southern Malawi, was hard. A small plot of land located beside a mud-brick house rarely produced enough maize, pumpkins and soy to feed the family. Eggs from a few scrawny chickens did provide some income, but not enough.

Despite the hardship, Robert was determined to attend school and transform her life through education. Back then, her dream was to finish secondary school so she could become a math teacher.

“My grandmother did not have the money to provide the food and clothing for my two sisters, my brother and me. I often went to school on an empty stomach with no notebooks or pens,” Robert, now 18, recalls.

Robert was a diligent student at Michongwe Primary School who never missed class and showed exceptional promise. Her smile and sharp mind masked her day-to-day struggle with poverty and, unfortunately, her life would only get harder.

On her way home from school, a month after her 15th birthday, Robert noticed a well-dressed, much older man standing under the shade of a sprawling acacia tree. His tone was familiar—that of a teacher sternly addressing a student. The stranger was a farmer named Mr. Chikonde* from a nearby village, and he explained to Robert his interest in finding a wife.

He promised to provide a better life for Robert and boasted how he would provide her grandmother with a sizable cash payment in exchange for Robert’s hand in marriage. Although Robert knew she was too young for marriage, she was intrigued by the prospect of a reliable supply of food and maybe even money for new clothes.

That evening everything was settled—Robert would be Chikonde’s child bride. Robert knew that the money from the marriage would also benefit her siblings, so she put on a happy face and hoped for the best.

Although Robert’s family gave their consent to the marriage, it was illegal. Malawian law prohibits the marriage of girls under 18, with penalties for violators.

A key challenge to eradicating child marriage in Malawi is the entrenched attitudes that accept the practice. Child marriage is closely linked to poverty, as very young girls in rural areas will often be married off to improve a family’s financial position. Early marriage not only deprives girls of education and opportunities, but also increases the risk of death or serious childbirth injuries if they have babies before their bodies are ready. Child brides are also at greater risk of domestic and sexual violence.

Married life for Robert was difficult. She lived in an unfamiliar village without the company of her family and friends. Instead of going to class, she filled her days with cooking, cleaning, gathering firewood, and fetching water. Most days she also cared for Chikonde’s nephews and nieces.

Luckily, Robert was spared the abuses that other child brides endured. Still, she remained determined to get back to school. Each evening, she pleaded with Chikonde to allow her to renew her studies. Each evening he would say no. Soon, everything would change.

About four weeks after the marriage, Robert noticed a group of eight village women passionately discussing something with Chikonde. They were part of a local women’s club supported by USAID’s Empowering Girls Through Education and Health (ASPIRE) program to increase the educational attainment of girls in selected districts in Malawi. They had come to free Robert from an illegal marriage so she could go back to school. In Malawi, mothers’ groups are instrumental in getting girls back to school.

Using bright smiles, laughter and the strategies learned from their ASPIRE training, members of the mothers’ group convinced Chikonde—who did not want to be arrested and fined—to liberate Robert.

A few months later, Robert sat attentively in the front row of her favorite class, mathematics. Overjoyed with her return to school, she explained, “It is nice to know that somebody cares enough to want to help me. If it wasn’t for the mothers’ club, I would still be married with no prospects for continuing my education.”

Robert’s desire to excel in school received a major boost in August 2016, when she received an invitation from the Office of the First Lady of the United States to be part of a high-level event on girls’ education during the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. There, she delivered a speech on the importance of education in her life, and how USAID and the Government of Malawi helped her gain the skills and education she needs.

The event was part of the U.S. Government’s Let Girls Learn initiative.

“Going to the United States has been a very good experience for me,” she told a crowd after returning from the United States. “I met other girls in similar situations like mine. We encouraged each other to work hard in school. The ASPIRE program has boosted my confidence and is helping me continue my education.”

Today, Robert is back with her grandmother and siblings, where she continues to study hard while inspiring other girls to stay in school and avoid early marriage. Now she has a new dream—to become the minister of education.

USAID’s four-year, $18.2 million ASPIRE program runs from December 2014 to December 2018.

*Real name withheld to protect identity.


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