Malawi: Child marriages deny girls right to a future

Malawi: Child marriages deny girls right to a future

Date: April 26, 2018
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By Madalitso Kateta,

Lilongwe, 20 April: A single decision changed 16-year-old Mumderanji Loyidi’s life. Although she was a promising pupil at Lisungwi Primary School in Neno district, Southern Malawi, Mumderanji recalls the day that she was told that she would be marrying a man who was three times her age.

Then only aged 13, Mumderanji who was orphaned at the age of nine – could not believe that her uncle would be sending her to get married at such tender age.

“I had just sat for my primary school leaving certificate and I was young and childish,” Mumderanji told this journalist in an interview.

Now divorced from her 42-year-old husband and back in school, Mumderanji is one of the estimated 50 per cent of Malawian girls who ends up as a child bride.

According to UNICEF, 46 per cent of girls in the country are married by 18 and even after the government’s decision to raise the age of marriage from 15 to 18 in 2015, 9 % of girls are still married by the age of 15, as boys and girls of that age can still marry with parental consent.

Despite a February 2017 constitutional amendment that puts the marriage age at 18, the country maintains one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world and the biggest reason behind it is poverty. According to the United Nations Development Program, an estimated 29.8 per cent of the country’s 16 million-odd population live in severe multi-dimensional poverty.

The Minister of Gender Children Disability and social welfare in Malawi, Jean Kalirani, recently announced that the prevalence of child marriages in Malawi reduced from 50% in 2015 to 42 % in 2017.

Sadly, many families are still allegedly marrying off their young daughters because they cannot afford to keep them and are enticed to send their girls into marriage by the  bride price)which is paid as the girl joins her new family. It is even alleged that in some parts of the country, young girls are even married off as a form of debt repayment.

The consequences of child marriages are severe, not only causing young girls to miss out on an education but also on their childhood, while exposing them to the dangers of early pregnancy and various forms of mental, physical and sexual abuse.

Patricia Banda, 17, another child marriage survivor from Nayuchi in Machinga, southern Malawi, told this writer that she was raped and beaten by her husband until community social workers rescued her.“Being young, I did not understand what was happening to me,” says Banda.

Despite her youthful age, Banda is now one of the 540 000 women over the age of 15 who are living with HIV in the country.

Grace Tionge Waluza, Project Team Leader for the Pioneers of Change project at Chance for Change, says the problem of child marriages in Malawi has been heightened by the fact that young people are not encouraged to play a more active role in the fight against child marriages.

“The youth need to be empowered to rise above being victims of circumstances in child marriages and bring about the change they desire,” says Waluza.

The Scottish organisation Chance for Change in partnership with other international organisations has been very active in the fight against child marriages through a youth-led campaign that led to the amendment of Section 22(7) of the Malawi Constitution that allowed the marriage of 15 to 18-year-olds with parental consent.

According to Waluza, sexual rights violations towards underage girls are rampant in Lilongwe and the surrounding districts because of the poverty that makes people to overlook incidents of sexual rights violations to minors.

“Child rights abuses especially sexual abuse targeted at young girls are rampant in Lilongwe and the Pioneers of Change projects seeks to raise awareness of the sexual rights violations that are suffered by girls so that they can stand up and become drivers of change,” said Waluza.

While poverty is one of the main causes for the prevalence of child marriages in the country, Senior Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, from Dedza, whose work against child marriage garnered international headlines in 2016, says that is no excuse.

Kachindamoto, who has annulled over 850 child marriages in the at the time, says sending children into marriage is a gross human rights violation that needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms as it creates a vicious circle of poverty from which underage brides find it difficult to escape.

“These young girls go into these marriages without the necessary survival mechanisms in life and as traditional leaders we strongly condemn such marriages,” she told this writer.

However, Kachindamoto is positive about the progress being made in the fight against child marriages.

“The government has demonstrated commitment towards ending this malpractice. However, there are contradictions in our laws and loopholes which allow for such marriages,” she said.

“It is the duty of all stakeholders, including traditional leaders, to fight against the malpractice which usually results into income variation between men and women at a later stage of their lives.”

Kalirani notes, “We recognise the problems caused by child marriages and the government, with support from its development partners, is fighting this. A special focus is being put on vulnerable and marginalised adolescent girls in difficult situations that perpetually face the challenges of early marriages, unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection.”

Kalirani says that her ministry, with support from different partners are ensuring that children especially girls are safe as demonstrated by the development of a National Child Policy that responds to the needs of children with harmonised legislation. She says the policy changes the way in which child development programs are designed and will enable children to enjoy their rights as enshrined by international law.

With so many obstacles standing in the path of young girls to reaching their full capacity and contributing to society so much more needs to be done to step it up for gender equality for these young girls.

Madalitso Kateta is a journalist in Malawi. This article is part of the Gender Links News and Blogs service. Photo courtesy of Elisha Kazonde.

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