Last week, the government of Malawi took a big step toward protecting its girls and strengthening its families: it increased the legal age of marriage to eighteen. Previously, girls in Malawi were allowed to marry at sixteen or, with parental consent, at fifteen.
The UN Population Fund reported that Malawi has the seventh highest rate of child marriage in the world, with half of all girls married before their eighteenth birthday, and nearly one in eight married by age fifteen. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report noted that in Malawi child marriage is often seen as a way to improve a family’s economic status, protect daughters from adolescent pregnancy—which is highly stigmatized—and ensure a family’s honor.
Yet for girls, child marriage poses severe education and health risks. After girls are married, it is unlikely that they will continue to attend school. In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, child marriage has been shown to lower the likelihood that girls will achieve literacy. Furthermore, child marriage exposes girls to all of the risks associated with early pregnancy and childbirth. Girls aged fifteen to nineteen are twice as likely to die from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth than women in their twenties, and girls under age fifteen are five times more likely to die. According to the World Health Organization, teenage pregnancy accounts for 20 to 30 percent of maternal deaths in Malawi.
This makes the unanimous passage of the Divorce, Marriage, and Family Relations Bill by their parliament a positive step in improving the lives of women and girls in Malawi. Yet more remains to be done. As former President of Malawi Joyce Banda said at a recent CFR roundtable I hosted on child marriage, “In Malawi this week, we have finally passed the bill of banning child marriage… But the passing of the bill is just the first step… Passing the bill is one thing, but implementing is yet another problem.”
Civil society groups warn that the practice of child marriage cannot truly become a thing of the past without programs to eliminate poverty and change other local practices. For example, in parts of Malawi, girls reaching puberty may receive a night-time visit from an older man—known as a “hyena”—with the intent of preparing them for marriage.
There are a variety of strategies available to governments facing high child marriage rates—such as Malawi—to further their push to end child marriage. These include community-based initiatives that mobilize local leaders as well as men and boys to change social norms, programs that focus on returning girls to school after marriage or providing them with vocational training, and conditional cash transfer programs that encourage parents to keep their daughters unwed and in school.
Ending child marriage will not only allow girls to reach their full potential, it will also contribute to healthier families and improve Malawi’s economic growth as these girls are able to contribute fully to their society.