United Nations and civil society organisations have welcomed the decision by Malawi Government to harmonise the child-related laws in the country that will see the child being recognised as someone aged below 18 years.
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu confirmed to Weekend Nation on Thursday that his ministry will harmonise all child-related laws because the current legislation puts children at a disadvantage.
Said Tembenu: “The harmonisation of child laws is expected to put to rest the debate and arguments that have been there for years as to who is a child.”
Currently, Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with approximately one in two girls married by the age of 18.
A key challenge to eradicating child marriage in Malawi is entrenched attitudes that accept the practice. Child marriage is also closely linked to poverty, as often in rural areas girls are married off very young to improve a family’s financial status. For example, in some parts in northern Malawi, kupimbira, or giving a young daughter below the age of 16 in marriage as repayment for a debt, is still being practised.
According to gender activists, conflicting legislation makes the minimum age of marriage ambiguous in Malawi.
In February 2015, and following advocacy efforts by civil society, Parliament adopted the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill, raising the minimum age of marriage to 18.
However, the new provisions cannot overwrite the Constitution, which stipulates that girls and boys aged 15 to 18 may marry with parental consent.
The Constitution does also not specifically prohibit the marriage of children under 15, but merely directs the government to “discourage” them.
UN country representative Mia Seppo said in an interview that the harmonisation of laws will support ongoing efforts to reduce harmful cultural practices and child marriages.
She said the move will represent government intentions to fully comply with obligations under both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
Said Seppo: “Complying with obligations on the definition of a child is a pre-requisite to enabling all children to enjoy and realise their rights and have a basis for claiming redress for violation.”