July 28, 2003

Food shortages linked to child rights abuses

Hunger is responsible for the re-emergence of a custom which sees families forcing young daughters into relationships with older men in order to pay off debts or secure loans, the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has found. An MHRC report said the practice of "kupimbira" - which allows for a poor family to approach a rich man for a loan of cattle or money in exchange for their daughter, regardless of her age - "has resurfaced over the past two years or so, due to the devastating hunger that has ravaged the areas" in the north of Malawi.

The country only recently made a recovery from the widespread food shortages brought on by a combination of erratic weather conditions, the impact of HIV/AIDS and the controversial sale of the national strategic grain reserves. More than three million people required food aid at the height of last year's food crisis. The situation is aggravated by the fact that Malawi is among the world's poorest nations, with about 65 percent of the population living in abject poverty, on less than US $1 a day.

The author of the MHRC report, the commission's principal investigations officer, Harry Kambwembwe, conducted an inquiry into the practice following a letter to the commission from a concerned citizen. The letter "singled out a particular case at Iponga [in the far north of the country] in which a young girl of 13 years was forced by her parents to marry an elderly man in repayment of K4,000 [about $45] which the parents owed the man", the report said.

Upon conducting interviews and getting written statements from community leaders, witnesses and church groups, Kambwembwe confirmed with locals that the incident had taken place and other similar customs violating the rights of children were being practiced in the area. His report noted that the custom of "kuhaha/kuhara" were among those being practiced but not openly spoken of. "This is when a man admires a small girl and arranges with her parents to take care of her until she is mature enough to marry him. The suitor provides the girl's necessities, including school fees. But the man has the right to stop her schooling whenever he feels like it. Even before puberty the man has the right to take her as a wife. The girl cannot refuse such an arrangement because here parents will have already taken the dowry," the report explained.

The kupimbira practice was "popular" among the Nyakyusa and Ngonde peoples in the borderland areas. Church groups were conducting education and awareness campaigns to prevent the continuation of "this gruesome practice which enslaves young girls to elderly men against their will".

Kambwembwe noted that all such practices are unconstitutional and slave-like. "This is a very archaic and inhuman practice that should not be tolerated in this democratic dispensation. The commission [MHRC], therefore has an obligation to safeguard and promote the rights of such vulnerable young girls," the report said. It called for urgent intervention through the designing of "relevant and well-focused civic education strategies", noting that because the areas concerned are remote "with little or no communication (newspapers, radio and television)," on-site campaigns were needed. The study cautioned that "in designing intervention programmes in the area, language choice is very critical because most of the people are not conversant with neither English nor Chichewa, [the two official languages]". As a starting point, the report recommended that the MHRC should explore designing joint programmes with the churches, which already have some programmes in the areas concerned. (IRIN)

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