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Early marriages hindrance to Malawi’s development agenda

By Martin Mbewe

Kathy Calvin, the former President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation once described girls as “one of the most powerful forces for change in the world: when their rights are recognised, their needs are met, and their voices are heard, they drive change in their families, their communities, and the world.”

If you take time to visit some remote parts of Malawi today, you may come across young girls who were married off in their teen years. These girls are victims of child marriage, a lingering challenge that has destroyed the future of many girls in the country.

Research findings by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2022 indicated that 47 percent of women in Malawi are married off before the age of 18. This is a worrisome trend because a significant population that would have participated in strategic nation-building is forced to take up marital, parental, and household responsibilities earlier than they had initially envisaged, consequently sacrificing any ambitions they may have harboured with respect to furthering their education and better supporting their families.

Child marriage is driven by many things including poverty, harmful cultural practices, limited awareness, lack of opportunities, gender inequality, and the belief that girls are somehow inferior to boys.

An article published in the National newspaper, a Malawian print daily, in October 2022, highlighted how child parliamentarians from the Nkhoma and Chilenje education zones in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, asked duty bearers to improve access to quality education in the area, as many children were dropping out of school due to early marriages, fuelled by harmful cultural practices.

Sierra Leone: Continued pregnancy ban in schools
Continued pregnancy ban in schools and failure to protect rights is threatening teenage girls’ futures © Amnesty International

Child marriage violates the rights of girls in many ways: denying them a chance to enjoy their right to education, a right to be in control of their sexual health, and their independence to choose who and when to marry.

Early marriages also put the lives of these young girls at risk of gender-based violence, a sobering reality that can lead to loss of life, reproductive complications, or other physiological injuries, as well as emotional and psychological problems.

Although there are documented efforts to address the scourge that is child marriage in Malawi, reports indicate that it is still common across all three regions in the country. In 2022, a UNFPA report posited that child marriage occurs in Malawi because of strong traditional norms and the failure to enforce existing laws.

I believe that child marriages can be effectively addressed and conclusively dealt with, if all requisite stakeholders join hands.

Promoting the strategic advantages of educating girls, and conducting behaviour change communication campaigns that clearly educate and amplify the long-term harm child marriages can have on a community and country, is of pertinent urgency.

Educated girls are less likely to marry young because they are fully cognisant of the innumerable opportunities that await them should they further their education, and what financial emancipation can do for their families.

More importantly, educated girls will also have a clear understanding of their human rights and will know what action they need to take should they be forced to marry against their will.

An educated girl is also a self-confident girl. In 1970, while still imprisoned on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela wrote a letter to his daughter, Makaziwe, congratulating her on passing her examinations.

This underscored how much this eminent African statesman valued education as it gives us an opportunity to change our lives for the better. In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, the late Mandela is also quoted saying thus: “Education is the great engine of personal development.

It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”

In a country where child marriage is common, realising national developmental milestones become a challenge. However, the national government and civil society organisations must be lauded for working tirelessly to end the practice of child marriage in Malawi.

In November 2022, President Lazarus Chakwera, while speaking at the Gonapamuhanya Cultural Festival in Rumphi district, openly rebuked traditions and cultural practices that fuel child marriages in the country, stating that some cultural practices and traditions are detrimental to girls and women.

The president asked civil society organisations and victims to report to the police if they witness or experience any act of human rights abuse. In my view, this is commendable and is a step in the right direction.

The government is not alone in this fight, non-governmental organisations such as UNICEF, Plan International, UNFPA, Point of Progress (PoP), and the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET Malawi), are also working tirelessly to encourage girls to stay in school, thereby progressively making gains against the proponents of child marriages. 

The writer is a Development Communications Specialist based in Lilongwe, Malawi

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