A rise in marriage breakdown in Malawi is creating huge problems in society, according to a leading priest from the African country who believes that massive economic and cultural change has come at a price.
Fr. Ignatio Bokosi said that signs of a marked increase in divorce cases and a sudden growth in the number of single mothers are contributing towards social instability, with many one-parent families struggling to support their children.
As pastoral secretary in Zomba Diocese, in north-west Malawi, he described how the Church was responding by setting up marriage counseling courses, directed by a priest who has received high-level training in the field.
Speaking in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, Fr. Bokosi explained how marriage – until recently the central pillar of society – is in massive decline.
Fr. Bokosi, who also works as an assistant priest in Zomba’s Sacred Heart parish, said, “A lot of marriages are breaking up and many more women are remaining single – I see this particularly in my parish.”
“Not many years ago, marriage was a very important part of our tradition and culture. Marriage was respected – not anymore.”
“This problem is getting worse and we as a Church have to help them as best we can.”
The Church’s efforts to tackle marriage breakdown are potentially significant in a country where Catholics are nearly four million in a total population of 13 million.
Fr. Bokosi’s remarks come amid concerns that in the south-east African country children are the ones who suffer the most, living in unstable families and lacking appropriate male role models.
Both Fr. Bokosi and Fr. Andrzej Halemba, head of ACN projects in English-speaking Africa, linked marriage breakdown to HIV, whose prevalence is as high as 12 percent.
Reporting that HIV was the main factor in the decline of life expectancy from more than 60 years of age to barely 40, Fr. Halemba said marriages were no longer robust enough to withstand the pressures of the illness and victims were frequently abandoned to their fate.
He went on to say, “The old methods for resolving family problems do not work anymore, and as yet there is no counseling available and so marriages are breaking up at an unprecedented speed.”
Fr. Bokosi said that the opening up of Malawi’s economy – which is advancing further than many other African countries – has encouraged women to challenge traditional values and strike out on their own.
He said they are attracted by lucrative jobs and an opportunity to escape an old fashioned, male-dominated environment in which women are not as respected as in the West.
According to investigations published in Demographic Research, a Germany-based online journal on population science, up to a third of people in Malawi get divorced. The research concludes that the probability of marriage breakdown is likely to be among the highest in Africa.
Fr. Halemba added that part of the blame lay with Western humanitarian agencies which only promote women’s development rather than provide support for the whole family including wives, husbands and children.
Official figures show Malawi as a growing economy. Although more than half the population lives below the poverty line, since 2007 the country has made major strides and Malawi is now a net food exporter following a dramatic increase in output which coincides with marked improvements in healthcare and education.