In 2017, Parliament outlawed marriages involving boys and girls aged below 18. However, thousands of Malawian women still marry before their 18th birthday. As the world commemorates 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women and girls, child marriage remains one of the most acceptable form of sexual abuse in the country. Our features editor JAMES CHAVULA engages UNFPA country representative Won Young Hong on the lax enforcement of the law–billed as one of the most progressive strides towards keeping girls in school until their dreams come true.
How important is this law in safeguarding young people, especially girls, given that 43 percent of Malawian women marry before they reach 18?
The law is important as it has criminalised child marriages and it is enforceable and every citizen has to abide with it; hence, strengthening the protection of girls from child marriages. It puts responsibility on all duty bearers to protect all underage girls and boys.
Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world with one of two girls marrying before the age of 18. Improving the legal marriage framework constitutes a critical measure to reduce child marriages.
The new Marriage Act constitutes an important step towards preventing child marriage in Malawi. The initiatives already taken to address child marriage practices are promising and testify to how law reform can be a tool to effectuate change and help address a detrimental practice. Establishing 18 as a definite minimum age of marriage in the Constitution has provided for a good start.
What needs to change in the enforcement of this law to ensure that every young person is really protected from the hazards of child marriages?
The marriage law is comprehensive with great potential to address hazards of child marriage. What is critical is the effective implementation of the law at the moment. It is imperative for the judiciary, police prosecutors, social workers and the community at large to use the law when rights have been violated.
What is required is comprehensive awareness and advocacy of the law. The law needs to be simplified and translated in vernacular languages and popularised to the entire citizenry.
What were the main lessons from the increase in early marriages and pregnancies during the Covid-19 school closures?
The Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed a range and level of vulnerability of girls and women to any form of shock i.e. social, political and economical or even natural disasters, thus a strong need for a holistic approach to address the multiple factors affecting the welfare of women and girls. These include:
l Strengthening health system to ensure continuity of regular, quality, Integrated sexual reproductive health (SRH) services
l Shift of service delivery point for family planning from health facility-based to community-based or self-care by increasing investment in community based health workers and establishing on-line/tele-communication health counselling services by health experts—access to affordable Internet is critical
lIncrease awareness on SRH and rights of all especially women and girls
lEstablish/improve referral path/one stop services for gender-based violence (GBV) cases and SRH/health issues of people/women and girls
lCreating community-based programmes to engage youth to enhance their skills, knowledge and provide productive healthy and safe entertainment including sports.
The pandemic has also showed us that knowledge of the law at the community setting is critically inadequate. If the communities knew that impregnating a girl child is a criminal offence potential perpetrators could be mindful and possibly avoid impregnating the girls because empowered communities could have made efforts to bring all culprits to book.
What other lessons you might share?
The other lesson is the confirmation of the serious gaps which we have in the implementation of the law. Teen pregnancies and child marriage incidences could not have been so alarming if implementation of the marriage law was effective.
There was and still is limited awareness and access to sexual reproductive health information and services by adolescents. Parental support to girls through sharing of sexual reproductive health and rights information is limited leading to girls and boys relying on peer and unverified sources of information. This was exacerbated by myths and misconceptions about Covid-19, which brought about risky behaviours and wrong decision making, especially among the youth.
Finally, duty bearers at all levels were not prepared for such a pandemic and its consequences on girls. Psychosocial services would have been put in place in communities to help in the Covid-19 response. n