This happened barely a week after I got another eye-opener on these kinds of practices, when I did a vulnerability mapping with my communities. One of the questions asked was how they cope with disasters such as floods and droughts. The communities told me that one of their coping strategies in times of food insecurity is to marry their daughters off. The dowry will sustain the family for a while and the girl has someone who takes care of her. The fact that she won’t be able to go to school anymore and that pregnancies are dangerous at such a young age is not their biggest worry. Let alone the phychological damage to the girls.
It is one of the practices in Malawi that is breaking my heart. There are a lot of things that make me sad; there is just too much misery and poverty in this area Sometimes, however, I notice that I get quite insensible about it . I literally step over the beggars at the market. I barely see the dirty, underfed street kids anymore and if they are blocking my way I shove them aside. Blind people, elderly, scarily thin mothers with crying babies, mentally challenged people, they are a part of daily life. And as a white person you attract them as flies to syrup. The Azungu in Nsanje have an agreement to never give money to any of these people. Tough? Yes, often it is. But we simply do not have the resources to help them all. And giving money only makes the begging and often even aggression against us worse. There is no sustainability in it.
One of the things I can do to help these girls is making sure that the bylaws in my project area will become reality. As I wrote in my latest blog, the communities in my project area are demanding the making of bylaws from their Chiefs and other traditional leaders. Because these bylaws are crucial for the success of my project, I decided to support them by facilitating the necessary meetings and workshops.
What are bylaws exactly? Bylaws are nothing more than local implementations of the national law. In Malawi the government is very centralized; one of the former presidents simply fired all local politicians in an attempt to become a dictator. His early death saved Malawi from this fate, but the government was (and still is) a mess. In additionMalawi has many traditional leaders: the Chiefs (village headmen), group village headmen and Traditional Authority (highest traditional authority). They are a heritage from the tribes’ lifestyle from the times before the Europeans came to Africa to ‘civilize’ the continent. In many of these former tribes the traditional leaders decide what is good and what is wrong. Sometimes they follow the national law, but often they are corrupt or simply act the way they think is right, which is not always according to the official laws. Besides, it is often almost impossible to directly apply national law to local situations By national law, for example, it is forbidden to carelessly cut down trees; but what is ‘careless’?
Bylaws take care of these things. In the bylaws a village or a group of villages formulates specified agreements, like how many trees are allowed to be cut; how many have to be planted back; which areas are intended for the building of houses; how many natural medicines, tree roots and wild fruits can be taken from a forest; how many animals can be hunted; etc. But the byLaws are not only meant to protect the environment. Other agreements can be that every house has to have a latrine, what the punishment is for domestic violence, and at what age a girl is allowed to be married. Things that seem to have nothing to do with the environment at first thought, but nothing is farther from the truth. Latrines improve hygiene and prevent sickness. Healthy people are less vulnerable to poverty and poverty is one of the reasons to cut down trees. The same goes for the early marriages: if a girl can stay in school longer, she’s more likely to become more independent, less vulnerable and more capable to take care of a family and her environment. Education is crucial for the development of a country.
This is the main reason I believe the making of the bylaws is of major importance. If implemented correctly, they will not only improve the ecosystem and environment, but also the social and health standards of the communities. An example of a holistic approach, exactly what the Ecosystem Services Approach stands for and what we try to teach the local officers. Hopefully this will show them what can be done when working cross-boundary and inspire them to do the same.