Child Activists, Not Child Brides
Malawi’s Parliament voted in favor of a constitutional amendment raising the legal marriage age to 18 on February 14, 2017, and President Peter Mutharika approved the constitutional amendment on April 25, 2017. The amendment eliminates previous loopholes that allowed children aged 15 and older to marry with parental consent. Now, any person who enters into a marriage ceremony with a child under the age of 18 with knowledge that the marriage is invalid or illegal commits an offense punishable by a fine of $143 and five years’ imprisonment.
Malawi has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage. According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children report, about half of girls in Malawi are married before age 18. Child marriage prevents girls from finishing school and perpetuates cycles of poverty; only 45% of girls stay in school past the eighth grade. Early pregnancy resulting from child marriage, before girls are physically and mentally prepared to bear children, exposes girls to a higher risk of maternal mortality and contributes to up to 30% of maternal deaths. Child marriage also puts girls at a greater risk of suffering violence, including rape, physical abuse, and emotional abuse.
The recent constitutional amendment represents the culmination of years of advocacy by girls working with youth groups and grassroots organizations in Malawi. One example is the Stop Child Marriage campaign launched in 2011 by the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) and Let Girls Lead. The campaign empowers girls to raise their voices and advocate for their rights.
The campaign has focused on a community-driven approach. The campaign trains girls in leadership, advocacy, and public speaking. The girls then share their experiences with the community, policy makers, and traditional and government leaders. Faith Phiri, the co-founder of GENET, said, “Girls’ stories and experiences are powerful. By raising their voices, girls can create change. When girls speak out, our leaders must listen.” In telling their stories, the girls educate village leaders and push them to change bylaws on child marriage and other harmful traditional practices. Indeed, girl activists have successfully lobbied 60 village chiefs to enact bylaws that protect girls from marriage. These bylaws require men who marry underage girls to pay a fee, and they require parents who marry off their underage daughters to perform community service. The campaign has successfully decreased the incidence of child marriage and increased school enrollment rates, according to an evaluation commissioned by the UN Foundation.
Additionally, girls working with the campaign have pursued lobbying efforts at the national and global level and have brought attention to the social, economic, and health impacts of child marriage. One Malawian girl and advocate for the campaign, Memory Banda, said, “My hope is that global leaders will understand that we girls are powerful leaders of change. 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.” Memory and other child activists urged Malawi’s Minister of Gender, Children, Disability, and Social Welfare, Patricia Kaliati, to support a bill prohibiting child marriage. Thereafter, President Mutharika declared the lawfulness of child marriage to be a national disgrace. The campaign’s efforts built momentum that ultimately led the government to amend the constitution.
“By changing the constitutional age of marriage in Malawi, the Government has  changed the narrative of the lives of countless Malawian girls so that girls can just be girls; not brides or wives,” remarked Clara Mah Anyangwe, UN Women country representative in Malawi. “This amendment has come at the right time, so that the Malawian girls and boys are not left behind. Malawi is exercising its political will by protecting the sanctity of childhood,” she added.
The reforms in Malawi should serve as inspiration for activists in other countries. In Bangladesh, for example, where the government has created loopholes that essentially sanction child marriage, organizations should follow the community-based approach undertaken by groups in Malawi. Already, groups like Wedding Busters inform parents considering marriage for their children of the risks and consequences associated with child marriage. A national network of girls called the Shornokishoree Adolescent Health Network teaches girls about their reproductive health and helps them develop leadership skills so they can pass their knowledge onto their communities. Community-based initiatives like these should continue in Bangladesh and should spring up in other countries where child marriage is a problem.
The work will need to continue in Malawi as well. While the constitutional amendment reflects a remarkable achievement by girl activists and the government in Malawi, the government and civil society must now work to ensure the effective enforcement of the child marriage ban. Law enforcement officials should be trained on the legal prohibitions on child marriage and on detecting and preventing child marriage. The government should also enforce birth and marriage registration laws to ensure intending spouses are of legal marriage age; despite the requirement that all births and marriages be registered, only 17% of children below the age of 18 have their births registered. Civil society and the government should also address issues that perpetuate the practice of child marriage, including economic insecurity and poverty, which drive families to marry off their young daughters. To encourage child brides to continue their education and improve their economic opportunities, the government should change its readmission policy, which requires girls who become pregnant while in school to withdraw from school for one academic year before applying for readmission. These reforms should be pursued so that girls can be activists, not child brides.