The African nation of Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, has voted to outlaw the practice of child marriage. Legislators have approved—and President Peter Mutharika is expected to sign—a bill raising the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18. Currently, nearly 1 in 8 Malawi girls are wed by age 15, and half of those ages 20-24 were married by age 18.
In the new issue of Ms. magazine, author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon points out that the world has begun characterizing child marriage as a human rights violation, with the U.N. calling on countries to end the practice. As she writes,
Child marriage is responsible for a slew of ills affecting both girls and families. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death for girls aged 15 to 19 in the developing world. Girls who marry as children are likely to drop out of school, thus suffocating their own economic potential and entrenching poverty even more deeply in their communities.
It’s not just a problem for girls, either. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times reported the startling U.N. estimate that 156 million men worldwide were married before age 18—one-fifth the number of girls, but still huge. In the Times piece, which looked at boys in Nepal, one man said of his too-young marriage (at 9!),
The dreams and energy you have as a young person go away. You are tormented by the responsibility of having a wife and family.
Women’s rights organizations have worked for years with legislators in Malawi to change the law, and worked within communities to help change cultural mores as well. Driving child marriage in the country have been such factors as economics (families seek dowries in return for marrying off their young daughters) and the belief that girls should marry as early as possible to maximize their fertility. There have also been reports of a long-standing tradition of sending young Malawi girls to camps where their initiation, or chinamwali, may include sexual instruction or actual sex. Some parents even hire a man called a “hyena” to come to their daughter’s bedroom at night to, essentially, rape her.
Other countries—such as Nepal and Ethiopia—now have laws against child marriage, but they aren’t always enforced. Hopefully the new Malawi law—combined with improved educational opportunities for girls—will lead to real change in the impoverished nation.
For more information on child marriage, get the new issue of Ms. (available in print or digital), which also includes an article about the film Difret, executive-produced by Angelina Jolie—the true story of a 14-year-old Ethiopian girl charged with murder for killing the man who tried to abduct her into marriage.
Photo of activist Memory Banda lobbying for the bill to end child marriage with a Malawian MP (credit: GENET). Banda is part of Let Girls Lead and the Girls Empowerment Network, groups leading advocacy for the new law.