Malawi nullified over 600 000 child marriages in 2015 thanks to the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations and Trafficking in Persons law enacted last February, authorities have said.
Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati confirmed in an interview on Wednesday that at least 600 000 under-age girls pushed into early marriages have been unshackled from the bondages and returned to school.
Of the annulled marriages, 200 000 were terminated in Mulanje alone as chiefs cracked down on the problem, Kaliati said, praising the traditional leaders.
The total annulled marriages have affected around 1.2 million people or roughly 7.5 percent of the country’s estimated 16 million population. Two-thirds of Malawi’s population comprises people under the age of 25 years.
The Marriage law-which President Peter Mutharika assented to last April-among other things, increases the marriage age from 15 to 18 years.
Activists and international bodies praised its enactment as the first real step towards protecting the girl child and seriously addressing gender issues deeply rooted in cultural norms and traditions and exacerbated by pervasive poverty.
Kaliati said collaborative efforts from the Ministry, traditional leaders, churches, UN Women, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) produced the result.
At national level, prominent traditional leaders who led the crusade against child marriages included senior chief Kachindamoto of Dedza, who terminated 330 teenage marriages in June 2015 alone as well as Paramount Chief Kyungu of Karonga and Chitipa, who championed an aggressive campaign in the two districts.
“The figure is coming to 600 000 after consolidating reports the ministry has received from NGOs, the UN family, churches and chiefs that have helped to end child marriages,” said Kaliati.
“Let me applaud the chiefs for putting in place by-laws to govern their subjects, which restrict girls who intend to get married before they reach the marriage age,” she said.
Kaliati also commended churches such as the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), Seventh Day Adventist and Catholics for helping curbing child marriages by refusing to officiate unions whose brides or grooms were underage.
Said Kaliati: “The role they are playing to block marriages by refusing to officiate weddings of would-be couples who have no proper documents, especially on the date of birth of the couples, is commendable.”
Reverend Brian Kamwendo of Nkhoma Synod of the CCAP said on Wednesday that through its Church and Society programme, the church has sensitised the clergy and laity on the evils of officiating child marriages.
On his part, Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) general secretary Father Henry Saindi said the Catholic Church does not encourage underage marriages as it is stipulated in the church’s Cannon law.
Secretary for Gender, Children and Social Welfare Mary Shaba said in a separate interview that government has been implementing the ‘End Child Marriage Campaign’ with support from UNFPA and the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment (Gewe) project.
The campaign promotes gender equality to accelerate attainment of national development.
The Gewe project-to run for three years with funding from UNFPA and the European Union-started in 2012.
While welcoming the development, gender activist Emma Kaliya said in an interview that there was need to harmonise the statistics to identify traditional leaders who are doing well in the campaign and those that are struggling.
Said Kaliya: “We also need scientific evidence and a proper survey to determine such numbers.”
Kaliati said the ministry will publish all information on abolished child marriages; adding that currently, paramount chiefs and other traditional leaders are being orientated on how to record such statistics.
The move to end child marriages has, however, created another problem-forcing parents of teen mothers to take care of the children born out of such unions.
Asked what supporting structure her ministry has put in place to avoid over-burdening such grandparents, Kaliati said some of such parents have been included on the social cash transfer programme the ministry is administering to help ease pressure.
A beneficiary of the End Child Marriage Campaign, Sophillet Matias, from Traditional Authority (T/A) Kalolo in Lilongwe, said in an interview on Wednesday that she got married when she was 15, but returned to school last year, when she was 17.
Matias said although she has a three-year-old son who has now been placed under the care of her mother, she aspires to finish her secondary school and pursue a carrier as an accountant.
It shows that the girls married in childhood are standing up for their rights and getting their marriages annulled.
Not only girls, even boys married in early age are reaching out to courts to get their marriages dissolved.
According to UNFPA, Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the worlds as it is ranked eighth out of 20 countries considered to have the highest rates of child marriages.
The recent Malawi Development Goals (MDG) End Line Survey found that one out of every two girls in the country is married before they are 18 years old, some as early as 12 years.
The survey also says empowerment and advancement of the girl child is affected by the pandemic of violence, child marriages, early pregnancies, maternal mortality and low level of access to and retention in education.
Malawi, where 50 percent of its girl children are married before the age of 18, ranks number 9 in Africa and 10 in the world on child marriages, according to Unicef. In the region, Malawi is only better than Mozambique where 55 percent of girls under 18 are married.
In Zambia 42 percent of the girls are married before they reach 18. In the world and Africa Niger leads the pack with 75 percent of girls getting married before they reach 18.
Unicef reports that one third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15.
In September 2015, leaders from Africa joined other governments from around the world in adopting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including a target to end child marriage in the next 15 years.
In sub-Saharan Africa, a staggering 40 percent of girls marry before age 18, and African countries account for 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage.
Without progress to prevent child marriage, the number of girls married as children will double by 2050, and Africa will surpass South Asia as the region with the highest number of child brides in the world.
Poverty, social and cultural factors in Malawi also hamper girls’ access to education, making them more vulnerable to harmful cultural practices, child marriage and therefore higher risk of mortality, the survey found.early pregnancies and maternal
But although the Marriage Bill is helping to bring success to the fight against child marriages, legal impediments remain.
Human Rights Watch notes that while Malawi’s new Marriage law restricts to at least 18 years the age when someone can marry, the country’s Republican Constitution-which is the supreme law of the land-says girls and boys aged between 15 and18 may be married with parental consent. Yet, one of the leading forces behind child marriages is parents and guardians who arrange such unions, according to official studies.
The constitution also does not specifically prohibit the marriage of children under 15, but merely directs government to “discourage” such marriages, says Human Rights Watch.
What this means is that unless Parliament amends the constitution to reflect 18 years as the minimum marriage age in the supreme law where it should also explicitly prohibit marriages of people under the age prescribed in the Act, the campaign could face legal challenges that may reverse the gains chalked so far. n