Child marriages are rampant in Malawi, fueled mainly by poverty, patriarchy and traditional-cultural attitudes and practices. However, campaign efforts against the practice are beginning to bear fruit with the country recently adopting a law to raise the marrying age.
The country’s parliament has unanimously approved a bill that raises the marrying age to 18 from the current minimum of 15. The bill carries a 10-year prison sentence for those who defy the ban.
Rebecca Mahlunge, the Gender, Sexual Reproductive and Health Rights and HIV programme officer at Hivos’ Southern Africa Office, said that while the promulgation of the law is welcome, much work needs to be done to ensure implementation.
“As we celebrate this milestone, the bulk of our effort, resources and energy needs to go towards implementation of the law and ensuring perpetrators are brought to book,” said Mahlunge.
“It is important that existing laws are harmonised with the recent promulgation. The government needs to ensure that the constitution is amended to reflect 18 as the age of marriage so as to remove any loopholes in the legal framework.”
Over a four-year period, Hivos supported numerous community and national initiatives and created spaces and platforms to raise awareness about the negative effects of child marriages. These took the form of radio and community dialogues, national and regional symposiums and lobbying parliamentarians.
Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 171 out of 187 in the Human Development Index, and has one of the world’s highest rates of under-age weddings.
Only 28 per cent of girls finish the full eight years of primary school and are often forced into marriages. It is estimated that half of the girls in Malawi will be married by their eighteenth birthday, with some as young as 9 or 10 being forced to marry. Child marriage exposes girls to gender-based violence, including domestic and sexual violence, increases the risk of contracting HIV and other STIs as well as maternal mortality. It also perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
Child marriages play a role in limiting the opportunities of girls to realize their human potential. Late last year, the United Nations adopted the first-ever resolution calling on governments to stop child marriages.
About 15 million girls worldwide become child brides each year, and more than one in three were married off before age 15 globally, according to UNICEF.