Africa, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs

RIGHTS: Sweet 16 Marriages Cause Controversy in Malawi

Claire Ngozo

LILONGWE, Aug 21 2009 (IPS) - Malawi's president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has come under severe pressure from civil society groups who are demanding he scrap a newly-passed bill allowing 16-year-olds to marry with the consent of their parents.

Girls chant against the new marriage age bill during the launch of the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA). Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

Girls chant against the new marriage age bill during the launch of the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA). Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

Although the new bill is a slight improvement from the previous law – which puts the legal age of youth to marry with parental consent at 15 – activists, including children, say 16 is still far too young to get married and call for the minimum age to be raised to 18.

In Malawi, cultural practices, especially in the north of the country, force girls from poor families, some as young as nine years old, into marriages, particularly when parents need to settle loans.

So far, Mutharika is non-committal on the matter. He says Malawians should debate the new bill freely and agree on how to move forward.

"Let the people and all stakeholders, including boys and girls, debate the issue and agree on whether the marriage age should be 18, 21 or 25 as some people are proposing. After the consensus, the matter will go back to parliament," Mutharika told journalists at a press conference in a turn of phrase that is believed to be rhetorical.

In the meantime, gender and children's rights activists are mounting the pressure. At the launch of the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA) in early August, a group of young girls of the Malawi Girl Guides Association (MALGA) used songs and chants to call on the country's vice president, Joyce Banda, to ensure that girls are not allowed to get married at a young age in order to protect them from maternal deaths.

CARMMA is an African Union (AU) initiative aimed at accelerating the availability and use of universally accessible quality health services related to reproductive and sexual health.

When Banda, who is also the country's goodwill ambassador for safe motherhood, addressed the audience at the CARMMA launch, she chose to ignore the girls' call petition to protect their rights.

Maternal deaths

The Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM), one of the country's main non-governmental organisations dealing with sexual and reproductive health, is worried that the new bill will greatly compromise efforts to reduce the country's high maternal mortality rate, which is at 807 per 100,000 live births, according to the 2006 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey.

A statement from FPAM, released on August 17, said that it is sad that this is happening at a time when Malawi has just launched CARMMA.

Malawi is one of the most unsafe places for pregnant women in Africa and beyond; the NGO pointed to early childbirth as one of the leading contributing factors. According to FPAM, the bodies of 16-year-old girls are not mature enough to carry out pregnancy without serious risk of long-term physical and emotional damage or even death.

FPAM also contends that girls who marry at 16 are at risk of complications, such as obstructed labour and obstetric fistula, which are so common in Malawi.

The NGO also claims that marriage of young girls equals child abuse and that a 16-year-old is not equipped to give consent, and therefore all marriages at this age are forced marriages.

According to FPAM staff, during its youth conference in 2007, most attending girls revealed that their parents marry them off early for financial reasons. The girls said parents should not be allowed to do this.

The Children's Parliament, a gathering of children in the country, which sits once a year to advocate for their rights, also recommended to government that the minimum marriage age should be set at 18.

Bertha Kamwendo, a mother of three girls aged between 14 and 19, is angry at Malawi's parliament. She told IPS she cannot fathom how policy makers can make such "a crazy decision".

"I don't think any of those members of parliament would allow their own children to get married at such a tender age. Our lawmakers are very inconsiderate. They don't have the welfare of the poor children out there at heart," lamented Kamwendo.

She argued that at 16 years of age, a child should be attending school, not get married. "We are jeopardising the future of the nation. How do you expect us to develop as a country if our children drop out of school at a very young age and get married?" Kamwendo queried.

Children's rights

MacBain Mkandawire, executive director of NGO Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO), agrees with Kamwendo, saying that at the age of 16, marriage will deprive children of education and severely limit their right to mental and physical well-being.

"When our national assembly accepted that a girl of the age of 16 can be married, we, in the child protection sector, saw our hard work to alleviate the challenged lives of girls taken aback several years. In all fairness, a girl at the age of 16 is still a child," said Mkandawire.

YONECO believes the Malawian government is contravening the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to which the country is a party. Article 1 of the CRC defines a child as "every human being below the age of 18".

But while civil society is fighting to raise the age of marriage, national health minister, Moses Chirambo, issued a press statement in mid-August, indicating the ministry is fully supporting the recent amendment of the law.

Chirambo said his department is currently in the process of conducting a study on the magnitude of unsafe abortion in Malawi, with initial results revealing a very high school dropout rate among girls as a result of pregnancy.

The dropout rate is highest among primary school girls, who are generally below 16 years old. Therefore, the amendment to the law will encourage girls to remain in school because they will not be allowed to marry before the age of 16 even if they conceived, argued Chirambo.

"The ministry will intensify sex education in primary schools to support this amendment. Both the minister and deputy minister of health support the progressive amendment bill approved by parliament," he added.

Republish | | Print |

it's not summer without you book cover