Raising the age of marriage in Malawi

Young women in Malawi, where the legal age of marriage has been raised to 18. Photo by: Erik / CC BY-NC-SA

EDITOR’S NOTE: The unanimous passage of the Divorce, Marriage and Family Relations Bill is a positive step in improving the lives of women and girls in Malawi, but more needs to be done, writes Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, senior fellow for women and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Last week, the government of Malawi took a big step toward protecting its girls and strengthening its families: It increased the legal age of marriage to 18. Previously, girls in Malawi were allowed to marry at 16 or, with parental consent, at 15.

The U.N. Population Fund reported that Malawi has the seventh-highest rate of child marriage in the world, with half of all girls married before their 18th birthday and nearly 1 in 8 married by age 15. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report noted that in Malawi, child marriage is often seen as a way to improve a family’s economic status, protect daughters from adolescent pregnancy — which is highly stigmatized — and ensure a family’s honor.

Yet for girls, child marriage poses severe education and health risks. After girls are married, it is unlikely that they will continue to attend school. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, child marriage has been shown to lower the likelihood that girls will achieve literacy. Furthermore, child marriage exposes girls to all of the risks associated with early pregnancy and childbirth. Girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth than women in their 20s, and girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die. According to the World Health Organization, teenage pregnancy accounts for 20 to 30 percent of maternal deaths in Malawi.

This makes the unanimous passage of the Divorce, Marriage and Family Relations Bill by their parliament a positive step in improving the lives of women and girls in Malawi. Yet more remains to be done. As former president of Malawi Joyce Banda said at a recent CFR roundtable I hosted on child marriage, “In Malawi this week, we have finally passed the bill of banning child marriage … But the passing of the bill is just the first step … Passing the bill is one thing, but implementing is yet another problem.”

Civil society groups warn that the practice of child marriage cannot truly become a thing of the past without programs to eliminate poverty and change other local practices. For example, in parts of Malawi, girls reaching puberty may receive a nighttime visit from an older man — known as a “hyena” — with the intent of preparing them for marriage.

There are a variety of strategies available to governments facing high child marriage rates — such as Malawi — to further their push to end child marriage. These include community-based initiatives that mobilize local leaders as well as men and boys to change social norms, programs that focus on returning girls to school after marriage or providing them with vocational training, and conditional cash transfer programs that encourage parents to keep their daughters unwed and in school.

Ending child marriage will not only allow girls to reach their full potential, it will also contribute to healthier families and improve Malawi’s economic growth as these girls are able to contribute fully to their society.

Edited for style and republished with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations. Read the original article.

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