Sevia says she is 16, but appears much younger. A local community worker estimates she is probably nearer 12 or 13. Her family faced severe poverty and with little income and not enough food to go round, Sevia was under pressure to drop out of school to become a child bride. The pressure increased when Sevia hit puberty and her head was shaved, marking her out as available for marriage. After getting married to a 16-year-old boy, she faces the dangers of pregnancy in a country with some of the world’s worst maternal mortality rates.
For the past ten years I have been working closely with the charity EveryChild, documenting the many programs they implement around the world. In 2010 EveryChild’s work in Malawi was coming to the end. We visited to document the success stories of programs that work to protect Sevia and girls just like her from early marriage and ensure children aren’t separated from their parents, but also highlight the continuing danger that children face in one of the world’s poorest countries.
In rural communities families are extremely poor and when drought affects their crops there is no buffer to protect them from hunger. HIV and AIDS- related illnesses claim the lives of 70,000 children every year and rob nearly one million children of either one or both parents. Extreme poverty leads to a high proportion of adults, mainly men, migrating to South Africa to find work. Sometimes they are able to send money back to support their impoverished families. Other times they send nothing home, leaving single mothers and grandparents to struggle to provide for their families alone.
Children grow up young, older siblings become parental figures for younger children. Boys decide to leave school and work long hours away from their families as cattle herders or work on tobacco plantations, while girls tend to leave the safety of their homes to marry young. This puts them in extremely vulnerable position where they are often open to abuse and exploitation, the risk of HIV and AIDS through unprotected sex and missing out on an education and a childhood.