School closures in Malawi due to the coronavirus pandemic have led to an alarming increase in child marriages and early pregnancies, child rights activists and government officials warned on Monday.
The Malawian government announced the closure of all schools on March 20, even before a single coronavirus case had been reported in the landlocked country.
However, over the past four months, infections have surged with a total of 3,664 cases registered so far, including 99 deaths.
Civil Society Coalition on Education director Benedicto Kondowe told AFP that the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the course of young women's lives.
He pointed out that before the pandemic struck, Malawi already had one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world.
But now "COVID-19 has led to a surge in underage unions", Kondowe said.
"Ever since schools closed to help combat the spread of COVID-19, remote areas have reported an increase in child marriages," he said.
Kondowe's organisation has reported 5,000 cases of teenage pregnancies in the southern Phalombe district, while over 500 girls have entered into early marriages since the onset of the pandemic.
"What the figures show is that girls lack the needed protection as they get plunged into the margin of life," Kondowe said, adding that increases in gender-based violence, exploitation and other forms of abuse against adolescent girls had also been noted.
In an interview with local radio station Capital Radio, the district education officer for the southern town of Nsanje, Gleston Alindiamawo, said Monday that over 300 girls in the district were nursing unwanted pregnancies since schools closed.
Alindiamawo blamed parents and guardians for failing to provide proper guidance to their children during the period in which they have been out of school.
In the eastern district of Mangochi, meanwhile, at least 7,274 teenage girls have become pregnant from January to June this year.
The figure is 1,039 more compared with those who became pregnant during the same period last year, the district's youth health services coordinator Peter Malipa said.
That figure included 166 girls aged between 10 to 14 years old.
Habiba Osman, a United Nations Women specialist for the elimination of violence against women and girls, told AFP that the long period of idleness as a result of coronavirus restrictions was resulting in pregnancies and child marriages across Malawi.
Osman called on community leaders to monitor and assist young people from engaging in "risky behaviours".