Malawi Teachers defile students
Primary school girls like these get defiled by their teachers in Malawi

Malawian girls feel very loved after this Tuesday February 14, 2017, the Malawi Parliamentarians showed great love when they agreed to amend the Malawi Constitution, sealing the semi ban on child marriage to total child marriage ban in the country. The lawmakers aligned the supreme law of the land with the February 2015 marriage law that raised the age of marriage from 15 to 18 years.

Today local and international NGOs, girls, parents, and stakeholders that have been championing the end of child marriage in Malawi have been celebrating the Constitutional amendment and registering victory for the campaign lobbying lawmakers to correct the anomaly.

So, when I saw a letter from Plan International in my inbox, I almost planned to read it later and maybe even move it into the Trash. In a second look in my inbox moment, I opened the letter and found the victory message from my good friend Memory whom I met last year at the Commission on the Status of Women session in New York.

Memory’s young sister are among the many girls that are forced into marriages either by circumstances, parents, or other relatives. The good ending for her is that she was rescued from her ordeal by a good Samaritan. One such Samaritan to young girls and boys and has been in the news numerous times, is been Sr. Chief Theresa Kachindamoto – who has removed young girls and boys from the perilous ordeals of forced child marriage.

I am filled with much gladness and pride for the many young boys, and particularly girls because of this Constitutional amendment. It is the localization of an international framework that I was privileged to negotiate on behalf of my country at the Malawi Mission to the United Nations in New York.

In 2010 I was a diplomat and assigned to represent Malawi in UN meetings on the Third Committee of the United Nations; during committee work, members of the Third Committee SADC experts in its bi-annual resolution, requested the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to provide the group with a report on child, early, and forced marriage. The SG’s report was a shocking revelation, that highlighted the issue of child, early and forced marriage to be not only a global phenomenon, affecting one third of the world’s women, but one that was also a human right abuse where in some instances girls as young as six years of age are forced into marriages with usually older men; and they almost always have no say on the matter. The report also highlighted the perilous conditions the girls were subjected: they were pulled out of school; some having started having children early, suffered complications of childbirth such as fistula, raptured uterus or death; others lived lives of violence either by the husband, in-laws, and/or an elder wife of her husband; and many spiraled further into poverty.

 

The SADC experts drafted a resolution that would call on governments to end child, early and forced marriage; the document that had to be negotiated with the rest of the 179 member states of the UN. I recall vividly as SADC chair Tanzania and Malawi as SADC spokesperson negotiated language that would be suitable for the entire body but most of all that would be helpful for girls like Memory’s sister.

 

The UN General Assembly adopted the Girl Child resolution calling for the global end to child, early and forced marriage by consensus. Reports were submitted to capitals; and the passage of the February 2015 Marriage, Divorce, and inheritance law – that raised the age of marriage from 15 to 18 – brought joyful tears to me and my SADC colleagues that Malawi was the first SADC country to achieve this milestone.

 

It has taken campaigners and lobby groups two years to negotiate the change in the Constitution to reflect the new age limit highlighted in the Marriage law. The Constitution, negotiated in 1995 had age 15 (itself up from 13 years) as the age limit for marriage. It is the advocacy work of girls like Memory, Sr. Chief Kachindamoto and local and international NGOs, the media who kept the conversation going by highlighting the plight that young girls were experiencing; many being pulled out of school; in the end government heard the cries and the February 14, 2017 change is the result.

 

This is great show of collaborative local, regional, and international collaboration: taking an international framework from the UN, localizing it and implement at the community level. President Mutharika, the First Lady Madame Mutharika and the MPs are to be commended for their leadership on this issue. Also, to be commended are the fearless girls and boys that championed the cause to end child marriage: you were the best spokespersons. We should also commend the magnanimous work of local NGOs and INGOs such as UN agencies in Malawi, UN Women UNFPA and UNICEF, Plan International, Human Rights Watch, Girls Not Brides, Malawi Human Rights Commission, and Yoneco among others.


 Memory’s Letter 

Janet, I have some incredible news to share with you. 

Malawi has made a historic amendment to its constitution to outlaw child marriage. 

This is an incredible success for girls in Malawi and the girls’ rights movement as a whole. We couldn’t have done it without you! 

Last year, I stood in front of the First Lady of Malawi to demand the constitution be changed to ban child marriage. But I wasn’t alone. I was joined by you and the voices of 42,000 people.  

Those voices gave me courage. And now, we’ve been heard! 

On Tuesday parliament agreed in a landslide vote to close a loophole that was making it easier for children to be forced into marriage. I was blown away by how quickly the government responded to our campaign. Changing a country’s constitution is huge and could take up to several years of campaigning but we’re seeing change in just four months. When my little sister was just 11, she was forced to marry the man who got her pregnant. The marriage turned violent and it had a devastating effect on her. The person who had been my little sister wasn’t my little sister anymore.

 

Thank you. Now I can tell my little sister we are one step further to ensuring no more girls in Malawi will have to endure what she endured at just 11 years old.

 

Young people, my fellow campaigners and I know too well the damage child marriage and other acts of violence have on girls. While today is a huge achievement for girls’ rights, we still have so much more to do.

 

As an advocate for the next generation of girls we will continue to raise our voices and we will refuse to stop working until every act of violence against girls ends. 

Thank you, 

Memory



My Response

 

Dear Memory,

 

I am so above the moon with joy and gladness about this development!

 

This has been my desire since I, along with my SADC colleagues in 2010, sat in the UN negotiating room negotiating with our colleagues from the West on the need to root out this scourge (child marriage) that threatens our development and was recognized by the UN Secretary-General as a global phenomenon affecting one third of women.

 

From the negotiating table, I followed through with reports urging our government to localize the resolution that was adopted unanimously by the UN. This resulted in the 2015 marriage law; albeit with the errant clause (creating the ban that never was!)

 

I was therefore, very pleased to join Plan International in lobbying the Malawi government to remove the clause that gave parents the right to give permission to their 15-year-old girls to marry! And more importantly to amend the Constitution so that it aligns with the Marriage law.

 

I’m happy that girls like yourself mobilized and spoke to people like our gracious First Lady, Madame Gertrude Mutharika, to help us lobby the Parliament.

 

Well done indeed to all of you that were in the fight to end child marriage in Malawi. For your information, my MA research paper was “How closely linked is child, early and forced marriage to poverty in Malawi?” (June, 2015). 

Kindest regards, 

Janet Karim

 

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