Growing up in rural Northern Malawi, close to the border of Tanzania, life for Tionge had already been no easy-ride. Her parents had both passed away, and she was now living with her grandparents, and as is the usual custom, they arranged for her to be married. At only 12 years old she was to be wed to a 46-year-old man from her neighbouring village, who already had three wives. They would receive a dowry of cattle and the prestige that the marriage would afford them in their community.
In many of the Malawian rural communities child marriage is still considered to be in the best interest of girls and their families. It is also a practice that is seen as an important way to improve economic status, either by dowry payments or by the continued support of the family by the daughter’s husband, and often seen as a way to escape poverty. Malawi’s deeply patriarchal traditions and culture include encouraging early sexual initiation and marriage, and women’s subordination in society.
The day before Tionge was to be married, her grandmother counseled Tionge on how she should take care of her new husband, advising her to love him and be submissive. Tionge explained that her grandmother though exceptionally loving, believed she was doing the ‘right thing’.
The night before the wedding, Tionge was escorted by her grandmother to her new husband to-be’’s home.
“I felt pain in my heart because all I wanted was to go to school and become a nurse one day. My dreams were being shattered, I felt so much pain. But I knew not to react to anything that was happening. All I was thinking about was how would I escape”
Tionge was desperate to find her means of escape, so that night she hatched a plan, and asked her grandmother if she could go to use the outdoor bathroom. Her grandmother refused.
Tionge knew there would be just a small window of opportunity, so she kept on requesting, and eventually, her grandmother conceded to let her go to the bathroom.
“My journey was not for the toilet, but for my freedom.”
Tionge made a break for it, and walked the thirty-four kilometers to the nearest town where she knocked on the door of her secondary school teacher’s home. Luckily her teacher was willing to help her escape, assisting her with the money she would need, and sending Tionge to stay at her own relatives home in another city. There she was able to go back to school and finish her studies, gaining a certificate in teaching primary education.
“My relatives searched for me for years, but they couldn’t see me until the man who had wanted to marry me would withdraw his request.“
After rarely being able to talk to her family for 20 years, and missing them greatly, They could finally be reunited when her husband-to-be withdrew his request to marry, having decided she was far ‘too stubborn’. Her family were extremely proud to see her now working and educated.
Today Tionge is a teacher and activist, campaigning against child marriage and has founded the organization ‘Girl Rise Initiative Malawi’ to combat child marriages and keep young girls in schools, with the mission of ‘leaving no girl behind’.
“As a young woman who comes from a society in which girls and women are perceived as ‘incapable of doing anything’. I believe I can make this world a better place for young girls, so that they can realise their dreams and choose their own path. If the world can educate girls, we can systematically end gender-based violence and abuse”
“Educating a girl child, is educating the community. The problems we face today like population growth and climate change are in need of women’s empowerment. Once women have these basic rights, they can defend themselves from inequalities and abuse”
Tionge’s organisation currently lacks funding, they need basic materials such as books, laptops, projectors, and cameras, as well as the transport to reach out to the many rural villages that still practice child marriages. We have started a GOFUNDME page here. Please help if you can.
Writer | Empowerer| Founder of Dear Teenage Me
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