The government of Malawi is proposing 18 as the minimum age for girls to be married as part of efforts to end the phenomenon of child brides, which has hindered female education in a country where half the population is illiterate.
“We have stepped up efforts to review the marriage age,” Minister of Gender, Children, Social Welfare and Disabilities Patricia Kaliati told the media in an exclusive interview.
“We are proposing that the minimum age [for marriage] should be 18 years, when a girl is old enough to make her own choices,” she said.
The proposal is included in a review of a marriage bill, which still awaits parliamentary approval.
Early marriage, according to Kaliati, is rampant in Malawi, where the current minimum age for marriage is 13 years old, provided there is consent from the girl’s parents.
The minister is worried because Malawi has the highest rate of child marriage in the world.
“The situation is worrying indeed, because we believe that when you educate a girl you have educated a whole family, community and nation,” Kaliati insisted.
Experts say the trend is rife because Malawian law does not explicitly prohibit child marriages.
They complain that current laws fail to clearly define who a “child” is, especially in cases of rape.
Minister Kaliati says parents and guardians who neglect children should be punished.
“We have set ten years imprisonment as the minimum term for one to serve for being involved in child marriage in one way or the other,” she told the media. “This will stop all perpetrators of child marriages.”
The UN expects more than 140 million child brides worldwide in the decade leading up to 2020 if the trend is allowed to continue.
This translates into 14 million child brides every year, or nearly 39,000 girls married each day.
Experts say multiple factors contribute to the spread of child marriage in the southern African country.
“Malawian girls are often forced into early marriages because of high poverty levels,” Minister Kaliati told the media.
Many parents marry their daughters off in exchange for a dowry – or to simply eliminate one more mouth they need to feed.
Other factors include the spread of HIV/AIDS, which orphans many children at a young age and leaves them dependent on others.
Aida Matindi, a 14-year-old child from the Chiradzulu district in southern Malawi, dropped out of school because her 19-year-old husband wanted someone to help him on his tobacco farm.
“At home, I had too many challenges,” she told the media. “I had no food, soap, money.”
She felt neglected by her parents, who are local farmers in the village.
“I used to find food for my siblings and sell fritters to support my needs,” Matindi said. “I grew tired, however, as my father is a drunkard and would take away all my profits.”
She recalled how her boyfriend, who was already working as a tobacco tenant, used to help her.
“When he came back to the village to marry me, I accepted because there was no hope of education,” Matindi said.
“I was already pregnant when he invited me to join him on the tobacco farm, so I happily joined him – I was not forced,” she insisted.
“I have a child now,” said the 14-year-old mother. “My life is here at the farm – not in a classroom, where people will just laugh at me.”
Another girl, who declined to be named, said she got married at the age of 11.
“I got pregnant, so we decided to marry,” she told AA in the Chirimba Township in Blantyre.
She is now raising her one-year-old baby in the densely populated residential area as a housewife.
Malawi provides free primary education, along with bursaries and social cash transfer programs for cash-strapped families.
Nevertheless, girls continue to drop out of school.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, however, has adopted measures to promote girls’ education, such as a readmission policy.
This allows girls who get pregnant while in school to return to class after having their baby – unlike in the past, when they were expelled.
“It is sad that, in this age, some communities still believe that a girl-child is not worth investing in education,” Hendrina Gyva, executive director of the Forum for African Women Educationists, told the media.
“I believe improving education and school retention for girls in the rural areas is the only way of eliminating early and forced marriage,” she said.
Gyva pointed to research that showed that educated girls were more likely to have the skills, knowledge and confidence needed to claim their rights.
A coalition of local and international NGOs is currently engaging a number of girls who had dropped out of school – due to pregnancy or prostitution – with a view to getting them to go back to class.
“A number of girls have returned to school,” Mac Bain Mkandawire, chairman of the “End Child Marriage Campaign Task-force,” told the media.
“But there are many out there still tied to the yoke of early marriage,” he noted. “They want to leave, but they can’t. They need help.”
He believes an amendment of the country’s marriage law would help.
“The amendment will enable us to clearly have the backing of the law,” Mkandawire asserted.