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Marriage laws in Malawi: how can girls benefit if they are not consulted?

Credit: GENET Malawi

Faith Phiri is the director of Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) in Malawi. After a commitment from the Vice President of Malawi to address the minimum age for marriage by the end of the year, GENET has increased its efforts to help girls voice their concerns to national and community leaders.

Malawi has the 9th highest rate of child marriage in the world – this is not a global ranking that we are proud of!

According to our constitution, the minimum age for marriage is 18, but marriages for younger girls are permitted if their parents give consent. Little is done to enforce the minimum age of marriage and it is not surprising that UNICEF found that 50% of girls in Malawi are married by 18 – nearly 10% of our girls are married by 15.

At an international summit on family planning in London in June, the Vice President of Malawi committed to address the minimum age of marriage. We were delighted to hear his words. But the problem is, when politicians amend important laws like these, they rarely consult the people whose lives are directly affected.

We don’t want the same to happen with child marriage laws in Malawi. After all, how can the girls, whose lives these laws are drafted to help, benefit from them if they are not consulted?

That is why we held a debate on what our national laws should look like to end child marriage. We brought together the minister of gender, the deputy speaker of parliament, members of civil society, traditional leaders, activists, and, of course, the people who would benefit most from this legislation: adolescent girls.

How can the girls, whose lives these laws are drafted to help, benefit from them if they are not consulted?

Faith Phiri

So often laws are discussed in parliament, but where is the voice of the girl? It is important that lawmakers interact with girls so they can understand the difficulties and challenges they face. We gave them this chance, and we had a very informative debate.

After the debate we developed a recommendation that laws should put education as the priority for young girls and raise the marriage age in line with the age of graduation. This would allow girls the opportunity to finish their education before marriage.

Keeping girls visible in communities

We face a similar challenge in local communities. When girls aren’t consulted, community leaders fail to realise the effect that harmful traditional practices have. Previously we would approach leaders to talk to them about child marriage and they told us, “no, we stopped that a long time ago”, nor would they realise the harmful impact the practice could have.

That is why we decided to change our approach and empower girls themselves as advocates for their rights. The first thing we do when we go into communities is to get the girls together, sit them down and encourage them to chart their lives on a map, to draw their experiences, and create their own ‘river of life’.

Many of the girls we work with are illiterate so we ask them to draw their experiences, or sometimes we film them. Then we each girl presents her story to the group, and the group gives feedback: “you forgot this,” or “what about that difficult situation you were in?” Finally, the group chooses a story to relate to their community leaders, meaning they promote and advocate for their own rights.

Now, when the girls visit leaders in the community to share these stories, they can no longer deny the practice takes place or that it has such an impact on the girls’ lives. We use such stories to influence community leaders to rethink practices that have been taking place within a community for generations.

Cause for celebration! Laws and commitments to end child marriage

One community we work with in rural Malawi acted decisively after hearing these stories. They held meetings to compile lists of the problems that affect adolescent girls and committed to addressing them. This list eventually formed the basis for a set of community by-laws, one of which was to prohibit the marriage of girls before 18.

The community agreed wholeheartedly to uphold these laws and to help adolescent girls. A great cause for celebration, we organised a big parade where we invited prominent personalities, traditional leaders and the community.

Often we uphold traditions only because we think it impossible to go against the rest of the community. By bringing everyone together in this way, we were able to demonstrate the wide support within the community to end child marriage and increase pressure not to marry girls as children.

At the end of the parade, the community read out its new by-laws and a traditional leader from the district signed the laws into existence. With support of people from all levels of society, from traditional and religious leaders to the neighbour next door, we have encouraged communities to develop laws that protect and support adolescent girls.

By putting girls’ voices at the centre of this process, we are ensuring that laws will protect their best interests. We hope that the national government will follow our lead and as it strengthens our country’s laws against child marriage, puts the voices of girls are front and centre.