Child Marriage Is Dealt Another Blow Thanks to New Law

Malawi is setting the minimum legal age to tie the knot at 18 and requiring that all unions be registered with the government.

Malawi women. (Photo: U.K. Department for International Development/Flickr)

Apr 24, 2015· 3 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

A law passed last week in the Republic of Malawi—a small, landlocked country in southeast Africa—seeks to put an end to the custom of child marriage while also granting wives and husbands equal status.

Despite strong opposition by traditionalists, the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act of 2015 was passed by Parliament in February and signed into law by President Peter Mutharika. It sets the minimum marrying age at 18, allows widowed women to inherit their husband’s property, and adds a requirement that all marriages be registered with the government.

The new legislation is a welcome development for Malawi, a country where one in two girls is married before the age of 18, and some tie the knot at just 12 years of age. Malawi has the eighth-highest child marriage rate in the world, according to a report released in March by Human Rights Watch, which has long been pressuring the Malawi government to change its marriage laws.

High child marriage rates in developing countries are usually the result of poverty (half of Malawi’s population—some 15 million people—live in poverty), lack of access to education, limited employment opportunities for girls and women, and a male-dominated cultural tradition that regularly views women with less value, according to the HRW report. As a result, young girls are often trapped in marriages against their will and become victims of domestic and sexual violence.

“Once they reach puberty, parents consider their girls as adults ready for marriage,” humanitarian activist Milliam Chilemba told the AFP news agency. “Many parents cannot afford to pay [school] fees for their girls, and they opt to marry off their children to relieve themselves of the burden.”

Girls being forced into early marriages has long been an international problem. Nearly 15 million girls around the world are married each year before they turn 18, according to USAID. In developing nations, one in every three girls is married before 18, with some as young as eight or nine years old. Forty-one percent of these marriages occur in East and Central Africa, 29 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 15 percent in the Middle East and North Africa.

The research also shows that, aside from being subject to abuse and sexual violence at a young age, girls married before 18 are at a higher risk of dying from childbirth complications and being infected with HIV/AIDS. There are also high rates of infant mortality and malnutrition among young mothers.

The issue is a global one that also touches down within our borders.

A 2011 survey conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center found that as many as 3,000 forced marriages occur every year within immigrant communities across the United States, many of them involving children. While the child marriage problem here is small compared with other countries, there are still troubling consent laws on the books, reports The Atlantic. For example, Kansas set the minimum legal age for marriage at 15 in 2006 but previously had no minimum age for marriage if the minor had parental or judicial approval. Most U.S. states allow marriage at 16 or younger with parental consent or court permission; California and Arizona have no minimum age at all with parental consent or court permission.

“By enacting a new marriage law, Malawi is telling the world that it is ready to protect girls from the abuse and exploitation that result from child marriages,” said Agnes Odhiambo, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Other recent cases around the globe continue to highlight the issue: A 13-year old girl in India made headlines by begging her teacher to help her stop a marriage her parents had arranged. In Jharkhand, the state where the girl lives, 40 percent of women are married by the age of 18, according to the U.N. Indian law prohibits child marriage, but very few cases are actually prosecuted; the practice, driven by cultural tradition, continues with little legal consequence.

The same could happen in Malawi, even with the new law—which is why HRW is pushing for constitutional amendments that will make it more than just window dressing. “[The Malawi government] should go a step further and amend the constitution to provide stronger protections to girls against this harmful practice,” said Odhiambo.

This is a key step, as constitutional provisions and cultural traditions often override such laws in Malawi. Most child marriages are currently arranged by parents or guardians, which is legal under the constitution, and arranged marriages for girls under 15 are merely “discouraged” under the provision. HRW would like to see constitutional amendments that say partners in a marriage should each have “full and free” consent to marry or not, and it should be made clear that no one under 18, even with parental consent, can be married.

Progress is also being made on the issue in other parts of the world. The Malawi law’s passage comes on the heels of Pakistan’s announcement that clerics who officiate child marriages will face prison time and fines.

HRW and other activists are taking marriage advocacy one step further. They are demanding that the Malawi government remove parts of the new act that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people. Under the act, marriage is only permitted between “persons of the opposite sex,” and a conviction under Malawi’s Penal Code—which criminalizes same-sex relations—can be used as evidence in a divorce proceeding.

“In passing this marriage law, Malawi’s government has itself recognized its obligation to uphold international law,” Odhiambo said. “But the provisions that discriminate on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation flagrantly violate internationally recognized human rights, reinforcing the perception that LGBTI Malawians are second-class citizens.”