Had village elders not intervened in stopping her parents from marrying her off at 13, Catherine Mkandawire would have become another statistic. Malawi has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world: 42 per cent of girls are married before 18 and 9 per cent before age 15.
By avoiding that fate, Ms. Mkandawire was able to get an education and earned an advanced degree in community development. Now 28, she is a climate advocate and a leader in UNFPA’s Safeguard Youth Programme, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, which champions youth, including protecting girls from child marriage. The best way to do this, she believes, is by promoting economic empowerment for the most vulnerable girls in a country where the national poverty rate is 52 per cent. Poverty can drive families to marry off young daughters or expose girls to gender-based violence and other harmful practices.
“Most young people, especially girls, lack so many things. This makes them easy targets for exploitation,” Ms. Mkandawire explained. “For them to be safe, they need to be able to make their own decisions. This requires access to opportunities.”
Like UNFPA, she recognizes that livelihoods, sexual and reproductive health, rights and climate change are interrelated. “More extreme weather due to the destruction of our environment brings hunger to communities,” she said. “With parents unable to feed their children, young people are exposed to high levels of risk, including in their own behaviour.”
Ms. Mkandawire decided that she should lead not only in protecting and preserving the environment but earning a living from it to inspire her peers to do the same. She started by planting 2,500 pine trees at the foot of a mountain on family land, then added beehives that produce 20 litres of honey per week, a fish pond surrounded by wildflowers and a banana crop. Diversifying land use beyond subsistence farming to a smaller and more sustainable set of activities is reaping rewards. With the money she makes selling honey, Ms. Mkandawire pays the salaries of five employees, school fees for her two siblings and supports her ageing parents.
“At first, people were sceptical of this project, but when they saw it working to conserve the environment, more youths started coming to learn from me,” she said. “Even the chief from our area donated land for the youths to expand the forestry project.”
Building climate resiliency
Malawi is one of the least electrified countries in the world. According to the World Bank, 11 per cent of the population of 18 million is connected to the electrical grid. The global average is 90 per cent. In rural areas, 4 per cent have access to electricity. This has contributed to deforestation, as people driven by poverty illegally cut down trees in national parks and forest reserves to make charcoal for cooking and selling. Since 2010, Malawi has lost an average of 42,000 hectares of forest. In 2016, the government committed to restoring 4.5 million hectares by 2030, more than a third of its land area.
Every Saturday, Ms. Mkandawire holds ‘climate talks’ about environmental conservation, and climate change as an entry point to engage youths on sexual and reproductive health issues. Many of the young people she has trained can now pay for their own school fees by working climate-related jobs, which are important in the face of extreme weather events, like the recent Tropical Storm Ana.
“Before I started this initiative, charcoal burning was destroying our forests,” she says. “But now with many youths doing beekeeping, there is hope that our forests will survive,” she said.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of UNFPA – East and Southern Africa.