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Hairdresser not bride: making a living in Malawi’s biggest refugee camp


Yelina girl child marriage entrepreneur

Yelina works in a hairdressing salon in Dzaleka refugee camp after fleeing from the Democratic Republic of Congo as a child. Photo: Thom Pierce/Girls Not Brides


Amid the chaos and clamour of the Dzaleka refugee camp in central Malawi, 18-year-old Yelina sits in a tiny, whitewashed hairdressing salon waiting for her first customer of the day.
Behind her, packets of synthetic hair hang on the wall. Except for a small wooden bench and a dusty 1994 copy of Private Eye magazine, the room is empty.
“We have some appointments booked for this afternoon. I usually get one or two customers a day,” says Yelina. 
She earns up to 3000 Malawi Kwacha (US$4) per day dressing hair for women in the camp. It’s enough to provide for herself and her family.
Yelina learned her craft here in Dzaleka, where she has been living since she was a child. She was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but fled to the camp with her father and stepmother to escape conflict in her country


Life in Malawi’s biggest refugee camp

Dzaleka refugee camp was established over 24 years ago. It’s home to around 34,000 refugees – most of them from DRC – with new asylum-seekers arriving every month.

Life in the camp is tough – especially for girls. They are often forced into early marriage or prostitution to survive.

Child marriage has been rising at an alarming rate in humanitarian settings. Families often see child marriage as a way to cope with economic hardship and to protect girls from increased violence. In Dzaleka, many girls are forced into marriage at 13 or 14 years old.

A year ago, Yelina was considering early marriage herself.

Yelina’s mother abandoned her as a child after she separated from her father.

“Now I live with my father, my stepmother and her four children. I don’t even have a picture of my mum,” she says.

“My stepmother doesn’t want me there. She doesn’t treat me well.” Her life at home had become unbearable.

“I thought that getting married would be a way to get away. It was the only choice I had left.”

Vocational training for girls in the camp 

Then Yelina heard about Girls Not Brides member organisation Solidarity of Refugee Women for Social Welfare (SOFERES) who provides vocational training for girls at risk of child marriage.
SOFERES trains girls in tailoring, hairdressing and soap making. They also run Saturday workshops on issues like child marriage and HIV/AIDS.

In Dzaleka, refugees are not allowed to work for a salary. Poverty also drives many families to marry their daughters in exchange for a dowry.

“But refugees are allowed to start businesses inside the camp,” says Neema, a refugee from DRC who volunteers for SOFERES.

“So we teach girls the skills they need to do hairdressing or tailoring, so that they can earn a living and be independentWe also teach girls about their rights.”

“A lot of girls are forced into marriage because they don’t realise they can say no.”

Economic empowerment through a hairdressing salon

Yelina attended the hairdressing course run by SOFERES.  She is now working at the small salon the organisation runs in the camp.
There is no shortage of potential customers. Dzaleka is home to a rainbow array of creative hairstyles, from chunky purple braids to beaded fringes and bleached blonde weaves.
“The money I get from this work, I use for my own needs and for the needs of my family,” Yelina says.
Yelina has also decided not to get married.
“SOFERES taught us that it is not good for girls to get married while they are is still young. 


“If there is someone hearing what I’m saying now, I would suggest to them to study rather than getting married.”