Protazia Kamdambo leads Dream Regrowth to educate rural villages in Malawi against child marriage.
For International Day of the Girl Child on 11 October, Ryan Ubuntu Olson interviews Protazia Kamdambo, a young woman who is a leader in her community in Lilongwe, Malawi.
Protazia Kamdambo is tackling child marriages in remote areas of Malawi. In this country, 46% of girls are married before the age of 18 and almost one in 10 are married before they turn 15. A 2017 constitutional amendment raised the age of marriage to 18 – a huge milestone – but more must be done to change traditional practices and increase knowledge and understanding among communities.
"My cousin, at the age of 16, was not only married but had two children and was suffering from obstetric fistula," says Protazia. "After seeing first-hand the consequences of early child-bearing, which was influenced by her early marriage, a fire sparked in me to not let any young girl go through what she went through."
Today, Protazia runs an initiative called Dream Regrowth. She goes into communities with high rates of child marriages and meets with the village leaders and members, trying to educate them on the harms of this practice. "I just show up!" she explains. "The first thing that I do is go the chief's house to introduce myself and tell him why I'm there."
Sometimes villages are receptive to her message, and sometimes not. "In some villages, they say 'it’s our right!' to practice child marriage. The parents got married when they were young. The grandparents got married when they were young. They don't see any problem when it's their way of life."
UNICEF reports, "The impacts of child marriage on girls can be severe." After marrying, many girls drop out of school, are at risk of early pregnancy and related injuries such as fistula, and over 80% of child brides experience physical abuse from their husbands. The practice also contributes to high birth rates – a significant factor that is driving Malawi's population growth.
"The top three reasons to end child marriages: education, health, and human rights," explains Protazia.
Filling in Gaps
Protazia doesn't just educate villages but also works with governments and other organisations on the issue from their end. "There are many policies being written, but they will leave out groups of people. Or, many international NGOs are here doing great work, but there are gaps in their work that need to be filled."
As part of her work, she summarises child marriage policies and even interprets them into local languages. She'll give these summaries to villages and collect their feedback.
"One village chief told me he went to the police about a child marriage. But the police were not willing to enforce ending the marriage and thought it should stay a private issue! This chief asked me to go back to the government and edit the policy, to write down the exact responsibilities of the police in enforcing the rule."
Protazia emphasises a village's role in ending child marriage. "I tell them, you shouldn't wait for another organisation or ministry or government official to come in and stop this – you must take it upon yourselves to end child marriages."
"Nowadays, I get reports from different villages that they are educating other families that are involved in the marriages to bring the children back home and back to school. We have girls – and boys – who have enrolled back in school because of the actions of their own community members."
Palladium, through the Health Policy Plus (HP+) project, helped train Protazia as a youth champion and offered technical support for her ideas when she asked. "I wish to learn more about NGO management so that I can lead the initiative strongly and better as it develops and reaches more people in more villages in more districts."
Her next step is to raise awareness about children's rights, to stop things like child labour, which she sees as linked to child marriage. "I have come to a realisation that most people do not know – and others do not understand – children’s rights and how to protect them."
Protazia counsels, "To do this work, you must be passionate. Focus on your target audience, never stop educating, and stay passionate."