The debate continues over the recommended marriage age for girls in Malawi. The Children and Young Persons Act defines a minor or young person as someone under 18. But in February 2015, Parliament passed the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill that allows Malawian girls to get married at the age of 16 with the consent of their parents. In this interview, our reporter FATSANI GUNYA spoke to Dr MARY SHAWA Principal Secretary in Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare on reports that a Bill is being drafted to amend the supreme law of the land, the Constitution to harmonise the Acts and put the debate of marriage age to bed once and for all. Excerpts:
Why is government pushing for the amendment of the Constitution to raise the age of a minor from 16 to 18 years?
Basically, we believe this will help us better protect the Malawian child and to ensure that Malawi complies with its obligations under the African Charter and Welfare of the Child and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
To fully understand this, Malawi is part to a number of international legal instruments and those instruments stipulate that a child is anybody below the age of 18. And Malawi as a nation, we signed to ratifying those and then we are supposed to domesticate them. In the process of domestication, we find that our Constitution is not in tandem with the international legal instruments.
So there was need to normalise and harmonise the Constitution with the Acts that we have developed over the years such as the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act and the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act; Prevention of Domestic Violence, Trafficking Act as well as the Gender Equality Act. All these are saying a child is anybody below the age of 18. But the Constitution had something to say, that a child is anybody below the age of 18 in terms of marriage, but with consent, that same child can be married at the age of 16. That was the main discrepancy. And one problem that happened was that somebody had sued the government of Malawi over the same. And, therefore, so many countries were saying that Malawi was not moving in this regard, yet Malawi has been progressing by coming up with so many relevant Acts which protect the child and the woman.
So, it is in this spirit that we thought we needed to harmonise all these Acts in consultation with the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and the Law Commission. Actually, it was agreed that we can do it as a nation especially when we had to focus on what needs to be done. So when you look at the proposed Bill [Constitution Amendment], it has since deleted all the ‘with consent’ clauses and we have just left some clauses stating that a person can marry at the age of 18. Secondly, we have also said a child is anybody below the age of 17.
What can you speculate as reasons for the framers of our Constitution to insert the ‘consent’ clauses in it?
The time it was being reviewed, most of us fought for the age of 18 and not 16. But some people factored in the issue of culture, that age 16 is an acceptable age in our culture depending on circumstances and so on and so forth for a girl to get married. But now we know, because the young people themselves have said it in a petition that they do not want to marry before reaching the age of 21.
So, already, the youth are calling for the age of 21 and traditional leaders too have endorsed 21 as the suitable age. But then, as policy-makers, we could not just jump to 21. We had to start with the international situation which is at 18, review it and may be move to granting the nation its wishes by putting the marriage age at 21.
QHow soon do you want these Acts harmonised?
As a matter of fact, we needed it yesterday, but today may not be too late! As I am speaking, the Bill on the same is already at Parliament and we have been lobbying our Parliamentarians on the same.
What else can be the reasons why we should revise the age of the minority to 18?
I think most people are aware that in this country, one can vote when they have reached 18 and above. With that in mind, it is easy to see that there was an anomaly that a person who is required to reach 18 before he can vote is allowed to marry when they are 16. What it now means is that anyone below the age of 18 is still young to be considered a productive citizen so to speak, to make informed and concrete decisions on their own.
QAny last word?
My thinking is that once the girl child is protected and exposed to school, say they reach Form Four, I do not see them wanting to marry at an early age. Their perception of the world would have changed and they would be geared to achieve more than before. In essence, the time spent in school readies both their bodies for the world and the future. This can easily lead to employment prospects and entrepreneurship. You may agree with me that Malawi cannot remain the same if even just half of children settle down easily. Secure a job or find something to earn a living from. This is what it means when they say that education is key to poverty eradication. The more job prospects are out there, the more the income tax base expanded and the better the public service delivery. But for all this to happen, we must ensure that a girl-child remains in school. n