Malawi: Marriage bill gives hope to women and girls

Malawi: Marriage bill gives hope to women and girls

Date: February 20, 2015
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Lilongwe, 20 February: Last week Malawi Parliament passed the long awaited Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill. Gender activists in Malawi and across the Southern African region have hailed the development and expect that once it is signed into law by the Presidency, the Bill will help end child marriages one and for all.

Emma Kaliya, Chair of the SADC Gender Protocol Alliance and the NGO Gender Coordination Network (NGOCGN) in Malawi said, “We are very excited as you may already be aware that this Bill was long overdue, it received overwhelming support from the majority who decided to move and support the Bill. I hope this brings to the end the long protracted struggle that we have well fought for almost a decade. What remains now is popularisation after its assertion by the Head of State and Government.”

Among other things, the Bill increases the legal marriage age to 18 years old and sentences perpetrators of child marriage to ten years in prison. According to the 2014 SADC Gender Protocol Barometer published by Gender Links, Malawi had one of the lowest legal marriage ages in the region and the continent, with the constitution allowing children to marry at the age of 15 with parental consent. Because of this, Malawi is one of the ten countries identified by the United Nations for having the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with almost 50% of girls in Malawi married off before the age of 18.

The Barometer also argues that girls forced into early marriages are more likely to experience domestic violence, marital rape and poor reproductive health and because they cannot negotiate safe sex, they are more likely to contract HIV. Early marriages also detrimentally effect girls’ access to education and employment, rendering them even more vulnerable to abuse and further fuelling gender inequality.

While the proportion of girls and boys at primary school level is equal, the proportion of girls drops by 5%, while the proportion of boys increases by 5% at secondary and tertiary levels. “Early marriage is a serious problem; most girls marry before reaching form four,” reads the Barometer. In some cases, girls as young as nine-years-old are being sold and married off to men six times their age.

The passing of this draft law by Malawi legislatures therefore brings hope to many young girls and women in the country. “This is something that we have been waiting for since 2009 and it is going to make a big difference to our advocacy work on child marriage and it will help us end child marriages now that we have a legal backing,” says Julie Juma, the Thematic Manager for Education and Youth for ActionAid Malawi.

Considering that it has taken almost a decade for the formulation and subsequent adoption of the Bill, gender activists have to redouble their efforts to ensure that the Presidency signs it and that the law is mainstreamed and properly implemented by the justice system. Civil society must work closely with the Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs Committee to expedite the process of reviewing Section 22 (7) of the Republican Constitution which is in conflict with the draft Bill. The Constitution says, “For persons between the age of fifteen and eighteen years, a marriage shall only be entered with the consent of their parents or guardians.”

Malawi is signatory to many international and regional human rights and gender instruments that require states to raise the legal marriage age to 18. These binding instruments will serve as important advocacy tools to speed up the constitutional review.
“We need to start working on distribution and dissemination [of the bill] to make sure that law enforcement, judiciary, traditional authorities and others are aware that this [criminalisation of child marriage] is now being enforced by a piece of legislation. We have a lot of work to do but I think this shows that if we work together change is possible” said Alice Harding Shackelford, UN Women Country Representative.

Daud Kayisi is the Media & Communications Coordinator at Oxfam- Malawi. This article is part of the Gender Links News Service, offering fresh views on everyday news.


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