A Legal Age of Marriage for Malawi: the end of an ordeal?

Mathilde Grenod, translated by Arthur Masyuk
15 Mai 2015

A small step for man, an even larger step for woman. On February 16th, 2015, the international community celebrated the bill passed by the Malawian government which bans child marriage for young girls and sets the legal age of marriage to 18 years. While it may be difficult to implement and control, this bill is good news for women rights and children rights.

Crédit : Courtesy of DR
Crédit : Courtesy of DR
This recently approved bill is a new victory for women rights in Sub-Saharan Africa. Malawian president Peter Mutharika, elected in 2014, had three weeks to sign the bill before it could be implemented.

Malawi has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world with 50% of young girls forced into marriage and over one eighth married by the age of 15. Malawi also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates and 10% HIV positivity among the total population.

Forced marriage causes early pregnancy, a great threat to young girls incapable of bearing children. This leads to a high maternal mortality rate: more than one woman out of 36 and one out of four children die for reasons connected with childbirth. The average life expectancy in Malawi is 54 years.

Practices tinged with crime against humanity

These traditional practices, closely tied to the standard of living, violate fundamental children rights. Families, often very large, cannot meet the personal or educational needs of their daughters and marry them off at only eight or nine years old. Therefore, their husbands take responsibility for them and their children.

Before marriage, daughters are customarily sent to “sexual initiation camps ” in order to prepare them for marital life and satisfying their husbands. In other cases, parents resort to a “hyena”, a man paid to travel from village to village in order to have sexual relations with future wives and “prepare them for adult life ”. This practice, called kusasa fumbi has its consequences: it exposes young girls to undesirable pregnancy and sickness, not to mention great trauma from early motherhood.

The girls marry men who are much older than they are. The only future these girls have in sight includes a life of sexual abuse, forced domestic labor, and misery.

International mobilization for women rights and children rights

International associations such as Human Rights Watch or Let Girls Lead have been sounding the alarm for almost 10 years. Constant pressure and collaboration between these associations has finally resulted in a bill. Last year, a representative of Human Rights Watch declared, “Malawi needs to establish a minimum age of marriage in order to protect young girls from the abuses, exploitation and violence resulting from child marriage”.

The association Girls Empowerment Network Malawi (GENET) has significant weight in implementing locally-targeted aid in defense of the rights of young Malawian girls. A report by Human Rights Watch from before the vote on the bill testifies to the ordeal that these girls face daily.

Their campaigns as well as those of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of organizations organizations, have created awareness programs within schools for parents and daughters alike on the dangers of forced and premature marriage.

A major legal challenge for Malawi

The new law will forbid any attempt at forced marriage under the age of 18. Any man over 21 who violates this law will be forced to give up his land as well as a portion of his livestock, a considerably harsh punishment in certain parts of the country. Families are subject to hours of forced labor for attempting to marry off their young daughters.

Under this law, adolescents of at least 16 years who wish to marry are legally fit to do so with their parents’ consent. This article is clearly tricky given how easily consent can be forced or even faked.

In general, implementing this law will be a long and hard process. It constitutes a major challenge due to rural regions distant from central power and the lack of a uniform national legal system. Effective implementation of this law will require an intense effort from Malawian authorities as well as cooperation from local leaders.