We are overjoyed by this news: Two weeks ago, child marriage was outlawed in Malawi. The Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Bill increases the legal age of marriage from age 15 to age 18.
More than half of teenage girls in Malawi drop out of school and are married before age 18, commonly enduring a horrific initiation to married life – one that frequently results in girls contracting HIV. Against this background, implementing the new bill will take a lot of work. However the fact it now exists and has passed into law is a significant step forward for the rights of girls and women in Malawi and around the world.
The road to this victory has been long and is the result of a strong group effort. Groups like Let Girls Lead have worked in Malawi since 2009, partnering with local leaders on solutions for girls and young women locally and nationally with organizations like the Adolescent Girls Advocacy Network and Girls’ Empowerment Network.
Led by young women, these groups have been persistent in advocating with village chiefs and community leaders to end child marriage. Girl leaders convinced 60 village chiefs to pass bylaws increasing marriageable age to 18. Penalties for breaking these bylaws combined with community and social pressures have been successful in protecting girls from marriage or even encouraging girls already married to come back to school. In a United Nations Foundation commissioned report, this girl-driven approach has been shown to benefit to 7 million girls globally, in the areas of health, education, and livelihood.
Addressing the cultural and historical reasons for Malawi’s very high child marriage rate, while also focusing on the political and legal enforcement of the new law as per the request of many marriage counseling experts, has the potential to significantly impact the 4.5 million adolescent girls in Malawi who might otherwise enter adulthood far too soon.
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Images of girls in Malawi courtesy of Let Girls Lead