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New Law Holds Both Promise and Challenges for Ending Child Marriage in Malawi

In Malawi, nearly half of girls are married before the age of 18 and more than 10 percent are married before age 15. Marriage at such an early age has profound impacts on the lives of the girls affected. It is a key driver of early, and potentially dangerous pregnancies, increases the risk of  HIV infection and limits girls educational opportunities.

Malawi, recognizing the widespread nature of the practice and understanding the consequences from it, pledged to take action. At the London Summit on Family Planning in 2012, the country’s leaders committed to raising the age of marriage to 18, as part of their overall goal of “no parenthood before adulthood.”

In Malawi, nearly half of girls are married before the age of 18 and more than 10 percent are married before age 15.

Although they had hoped to make the change by the end of 2014, the Parliament of Malawi took a huge step towards achieving their goal last month when they passed the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations bill, which raises the legal age of marriage to 18. The bill has been heralded as major achievement around the world, but in visiting Malawi, I learned that the bill and implementation of it still have many hurdles to get over.

The bill tackles a range of issues relating to marriage and divorce, including definitions of marriage, grounds for divorce, definitions of marital rape and mandating child support. Some provisions have proven controversial to various groups, who see the law as either going too far or failing to go far enough. Some members of Parliament have emphasized that the bill had been pushed through or even “hijacked” by the nation’s female parliamentarians.  Additionally, questions remain as to the constitutionality of the child marriage provision. Malawi’s constitution recognizes 15 as the legal age for marriage if a girl has the consent of her family. Given these challenges, the president has not yet signed the law.

PAI’s partners also highlighted additional challenges to the bill’s implementation. Though one of the intentions of the bill is, to encourage girls to stay in school, some have questioned whether or not the educational system has the capacity to educate those girls. Additionally, some have mentioned that the culture itself will have to change, as many girls are still expected to stay home and help take care of their families before they marry and start families of their own.

None of this is to diminish the importance of the law or efforts of those who have championed it. The law lays down a concrete goal for the country to work towards, and will provide a valuable tool for advocates hoping to hold the government accountable for progress toward ending early marriage and addressing one of the causes of early pregnancy in the country. This law will complement other efforts underway in Malawi to end early pregnancy, including increasing access to age-appropriate sexual education and increasing contraceptive use among adolescents.   Change happens incrementally, and with the passage of this legislation the country has made tremendous strides.

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