Malawi has raised the legal marrying age from 15 to 18. A girls’ rights campaigner explains how advocates secured this victory
Malawi banned child marriage last week through new legislation that increases the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, representing a major victory for girls in a country that has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. More than half of girls are married off as children, sometimes as early as the age of nine.
Child marriage is both the cause and consequence of grinding poverty, gender-based violence and the inescapable inequality that girls experience every day. For example, Florence Mwase, an eight-year-old Malawian orphan, had to give up her dream of becoming a nurse because her aunt couldn’t afford her school fees. Her aunt sent her to attend a sexual initiation camp when she turned 13. At the camp, Florence and the girls were forced to participate in kusasa fumbi a traditional practice common in southern Malawi to cleanse girls of their “childhood dust” and prepare them to become wives. Florence was forced to have sex with the “hyena,’” an older man who was paid by the village to have sex with all girls attending the camp.
After Florence returned from the camp, Florence’s aunt arranged her marriage to a 27-year-old man. Florence lived as a virtual slave to her husband, with no way to escape his physical and sexual abuse. After two years, Florence was able to leave her marriage through the support of the Girls Empowerment Network (Genet), which is leading Malawi’s fight for girls. And despite the brutality she suffered, Florence was lucky – most Malawian girls never get a second chance.
Malawi’s Stop Child Marriage campaign was launched in 2011 by Genet and Let Girls Lead on the principle of empowering girls to fight for their own rights. We trained over 200 girls in the Chiradzulo District of southern Malawi to become advocates. The girls lobbied 60 village chiefs to ratify and enact by-laws that protect adolescent girls from early marriage and harmful sexual initiation practices. These bylaws force men who marry girls under the age of 21 to give up their land in the village and pay a fee of seven goats, a major economic penalty in the region. The bylaws also penalise parents who marry off their underage daughters by imposing social sanctions that include three months of mandatory janitorial service in the local health clinic.
On the election of Joyce Banda as president in 2012, Genet and others hoped that Malawi’s first woman president would use the power of her office to raise the age that girls can legally marry from 15 to 18. Unfortunately, President Banda left the marriage law untouched.
When Peter Mutharika assumed the presidency in 2014, Genet advocated fiercely with his minister of gender, Patricia Kaliati, to support a new marriage bill. Fortunately Kaliati and Genet had an ally in President Mutharika, who declared the legal sanctioning of child marriage a national disgrace. President Mutharika is expected to sign the legislation into law, and advocates are now developing strategies to ensure effective implementation of the new law.
So what’s next? Overcoming deeply held cultural beliefs and traditions will not be easy, especially in outlying rural districts impenetrable by communications from the capital. Local, on the ground education campaigns will be key to disseminating information about the new law and building broad-based support for girls’ rights. In addition, while the new law and penal code mandate a minimum age of 18 for marriage, girls as young as 16 can still marry with parental consent. Civil society leaders are pushing for the removal of this loophole, arguing that “parental consent” is too often easily obtained when poor families have too many daughters to feed.
Yet even with these limitations, the new law does provide girls with a voice and power – tangible leverage that girls and advocates alike can use to resist child marriage. The new law also gives sharper teeth to watchdog efforts, enforcement, and the rescue of child brides. In March, advocates from around the world will converge in New York during the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Civil society leaders will celebrate Malawi’s landmark victory for girls, and call upon global decision makers to prioritise girls’ health and education in the post-2015 development process.
One of these powerful advocates is Memory Banda, an 18-year-old Malawian girl. When her younger sister was married aged 11 to a man in his early thirties, Memory promised herself that she would fight for girls’ rights. She went on to finish school and help lead the campaign to pass Malawi’s new law to end child marriage. Memory’s sister, on the other hand, is now 16 years old and has three children.
Memory will raise her voice at the UN to advocate for girls like her sister and for the 70 million more girls around the world who were married as children. “My hope is that global leaders will understand that we girls are powerful leaders of change,” she says. “Marriage is often the end for girls like me. But if our leaders will invest in us and give us the chance to be educated, we will become women who create a better society for everyone.”http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/feb/26/girl-activists-child-marriage-malawi-let-girls-lead