Malawi’s President, Peter Mutharika, has signed the Marriage and Family Relations Bill into law after a period of uncertainty since February, when the country’s parliament ratified the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill. The new legislation raises the minimum age for marriage from 14 to 18, effectively banning child marriages. This development, which follows more than fifteen years of undaunted advocacy, marks a huge step forward in the fight to end the insidious practice in the country.
Over the past few years, Hivos in Southern Africa has been advocating for a legislative framework to stem the problem of child marriages in Malawi. Hivos has supported numerous community and national initiatives and created spaces and platforms to raise awareness about the negative effects of child marriages. These took the form of radio and community dialogues, national and regional symposiums and lobbying parliamentarians.
Since the Bill was passed early this year, Hivos in collaboration with like-minded organisations has been working with the media for presidential assent to the bill.
“The enactment of the bill into law is a step in the right direction towards ending child marriages. Inasmuch as we have the Act now, we still need to work on amending the constitution to ensure alignment,” said Cynthia Ngwalo, Hivos Southern Africa’s Child Marriages Programme Coordinator.
She said that Hivos will continue to work on the legal and policy environment to ensure alignment and changing of harmful social cultural practices that encourage child marriages.
“We are going to create awareness around the act to ensure that law enforcers actively implement it and that the girls and their guardians are aware of it, can seek redress when necessary and use it to protect their rights,” she said.
Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 171 out of 187 in the Human Development Index. Over half of its population, estimated to be 14.9 million, lives below the national poverty line.
Only 28 per cent of girls finish the full eight years of primary school and are often forced into early marriages. It is estimated that half of the girls in Malawi will be married by their eighteenth birthday, with some as young as 9 or 10 being forced to marry. Child marriage exposes girls to gender-based violence, including domestic and sexual violence.