by Pilirani Semu-Banda
- Malawi -
In Nkombanyama, a village in Malawi’s northern district of Chitipa, a 14-year-old girl was saved by a traditional chief as she was about to be married off to a successful farmer. Sadly, her father was using her as currency to settle a debt with the farmer.
The girl’s father, identified only as Hannock, reportedly made a habit of borrowing money from the farmer, using his daughter as collateral. He eventually ordered her to sleep with the farmer after he failed to settle the loan.
The issue only came to light in March of this year after the girl fell pregnant having “settled” her father’s debts for some time.
The culture of using female children to settle outstanding debts has existed in this part of Malawi since time immemorial among the people in Chitipa and other surrounding districts.
The custom, locally known as Kupimbira, has forced children as young as five years old into sexual relationships with men as old as 70. The children are swapped for material goods such as soap, sugar, bread and cattle or as settlement for outstanding debts.
The culture of settling debts with female children as currency was initially aimed at strengthening relationships between neighboring families who would arrange for their children to marry. It could also be used in cases where a young girl had entered another man’s house. According to tradition, some communities viewed this as a transgression and taboo that prevented the girl from returning home. The man’s parents would then offer payment to the family of a girl once a couple had eloped. Some witchdoctors have also been known to demand female children as payment for services from families seeking treatment.
Police spokesman in the area, Solemn Chunga, confirms that such incidents are common. Once a deal has been reached between parents and the businessman or successful farmer, the child is “sold off”. The new “owner” is sometimes asked to wait for the girl to mature if she is too young to satisfy him sexually.
Chunga says that at first, the girl refused to sleep with the farmer, but finally relented after being threatened with unspecified actions by her father.
“The father only owed the farmer about $15,” says Chunga.
Because of the high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in Malawi (which is 15% among 15 to 49 year olds) Kupimbira is now slowly being frowned upon. Concerned residents in the village came forward and alerted their local leader who quickly reported the girl’s story to police.
Chunga said the girl, her father and “her buyer” admitted to using her as payment. The two men were arrested and charged with defilement.
Prominent human rights lawyer in Malawi, Vera Chirwa, says the government and non-governmental organizations in the country must relentlessly fight against this “harmful culture”.
“The girls who go through this not only have their rights to education trampled upon, they also face a doomed future,” says Chirwa. Their rights to safe living are also violated as they usually face considerable reproductive health challenges once they become pregnant because most of them are very young.
Currently, the culture of Kupimbira is classified as domestic violence under a law recently passed in Malawi parliament. Law enforcement is supporting the effort by holding perpetrators accountable – they are now investigating reported cases of Kupimbira and bringing criminal charges against those found to be in violation.
And while the law ushers in a new era of awareness, outreach is needed to help educate resistant members of society to eradicate the practice. Sensitization campaigns are being conducted by non-governmental organizations in partnership with churches to educate rural community members, especially those most affected – vulnerable women and children who don’t necessarily know their rights. Organizations like Malawi's Carer - Center for Advice, Research & Education on Human Rights are invested in eradicating Kupimbira and are taking a holistic approach to awareness. Educational campaigns are targeting both the perpetrators and victims (or potential victims), by bringing them together to learn how this practice violates the rights of female children.
And while many people are opposed to this form of modern day slavery, its cultural persistence has made Kupimbira difficult to eliminate. There still remains resistance to this change, mainly among men in rural communities.