The Permanent Committee on Gender Related Laws (GRL) of the NGO-Gender Coordination Network (NGO GCN), with funding from the Royal Norwegian Embassy, has been holding consultations with various stakeholders regarding the provisions in the new Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill.
An area of concern in these consultations—which were held in Balaka, Mangochi, Mchinji and Rumphi—was the question of marriage age. The consultation sought input from the people regarding the appropriate age at which a person should get married. Currently, the Constitution, which sets 18 as the marriage age, also allows those between 15 and 18 to marry but with parental consent.
Their findings were two-fold: raise marriage age to 21 and delete provisions that say those between 15 and 18 should marry with parental consent.
This is not the first time a study has revealed Malawians’ views on the marriage age.
Two years ago, government, through the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare, commissioned a nationwide survey to gauge Malawians perceptions of marriage age.
According to the principal secretary for the ministry, Mary Shawa, the results were overwhelmingly in support of raising the marriage age to 21.
“There were variations of responses here and there. But if you look at it in its entirety, the overwhelming feeling is that of raising the marriage age to 21,” she says.
But why, in the first place, should marriage age be raised?
With research showing continued increase of child marriages in the country, Caroline Mvalo, chairperson of GRL, argues that in the case of child marriage, girls are disproportionately disadvantaged because sexual relations at a young age can result in health complications and risks, and impede on their access to full education and a better future.
“Child marriage, therefore, has negative implications on national development, and should be a priority area of concern for the Malawi Government,” she says.
Unfortunately, she notes, currently, there is no clear consensus within legislation on the minimum age for marriage in Malawi.
“The Constitution allows marriages of persons below the age of 18, while the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill is proposing 18 years as the minimum age of marriage,” she says.
She adds that the conflict between these provisions is compounded by Section 23 of the Malawi Constitution, which provides several ages of minority with respect to different issues.
“According to the Convention of the Rights of a Child [CRC], and, of course, the Child Care Justice and Protection Act of Malawi; a “child” is defined as a person below the age of 18.
“There is, therefore, a need for Malawi to harmonise the definition of a child in line with the international definition of a child,” she says.
The international definition of a child is anyone below the age of 18. But for purposes of curbing child marriages, there is a strong feeling that marriage age should be raised to 21.
But what is it about the age of 21 that makes it a good age for marriage?
Gynaecologist Dr Edgar Kuchingale says at 21, a girl is both physically and psychologically prepared to manage maternal issues.
“Maternal health is a social, mental and physical thing. The fact that somebody can give birth at 15 or 16 does not make that person ready to do it. It leads to complications. But at 21, research shows, a woman’s body is mature enough to give birth,” he says.
Though underlining complexities involved in changing the law to raise marriage age to 21, Kuchingale, in show of support, adds that this is the right maternal choice that Malawi needs.
“We should have done this long time ago. I understand that internationally, the favoured age is 18. Well at that age, I am not sure if a girl is socially matured. Maternal health is not just a mental and physical issue; it is also a social issue,” he says.
Apart from the medical argument, Enelesi Banda, a Standard Six pupil at Lirangwe Primary School in Blantyre gives an interesting age calculation to substantiate the reason she would be ready for marriage at 21.
“Currently, I am 10 and Standard Six. I will finish primary school at 13, secondary at 17 and college at 21. To protect a girl’s right to university education, we need to raise the marriage age to 21,” she says.
However, not everybody agrees with raising the marriage age to 21.
John Billiati of Blantyre, argues that “if one is old enough to vote at 18, why should they have to wait for 21 to get married?”
A psychologist who asked for anonymity argues that the issue of marriage age should be put in context.
“Is 21 a realistic age for marriage? Most countries have 18, and that sounds a fair age,” he says.
He notes that in Malawi, there is need to harmonise the age with other legal instruments.
“For example, one who is 18 is allowed to vote, to drive and drink alcohol. What is the basis for not allowing them to marry? If it is to study, I have never heard of a tertiary institution that does not allow people that are married,” he says.
Yet despite that, a number of stakeholders have already made bold steps on raising the marriage age.
Mvalo says they will soon be meeting with parliamentarians to lobby them to enact the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill which is proposing the marriage age to be 18 to consider popular perceptions of raising it to 21.
“We will also roll out awareness campaigns for the public to realise the advantages of encouraging children not to get married before 21,” she says.
Shawa, on the other hand, says that her ministry is ready and supportive of the proposal to raise the marriage to 21.
“We have written the Ministry of Justice on our proposal. We are yet to meet and discuss. We want our children to get educated not to rush into marriage,” she says.