When Malawi’s parliament unanimously passed the “Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill” last week, they sent a message to the world: we are ready to take on and end child marriage. The bill, which is set to be signed by President Peter Mutharika within the next three weeks, outlaws marriage before the age of 18 and imposes a 10-year prison sentence on those who defy the ban. This new law will bring Malawi in line with international standards for the minimum age of marriage, such as the African Charter’s Maputo Protocol, and is an important step towards ending the practice in a country where 50 percent of girls are married.
While this is a victory for Malawi’s women and girls, it’s important to remember that laws alone are not going to end the practice of child marriage, in Malawi or elsewhere. Experience shows us that ending child marriage requires action on multiple levels. The ban must be used in conjunction with programs that address the root causes of child marriage, such as poverty and gender inequality, and the entrenched notion that women and girls should not have control over their own sexual and reproductive health.
In Malawi, for example, there is a belief that girls should be married early to increase their odds of giving birth. But because girls’ bodies are not yet ready to have babies, early marriage and childbirth increases the likelihood that girls will die or suffer devastating injuries, such as obstetric fistula. It is also not uncommon in Malawi—as it is in other parts of the world—for girls to be forced to marry the men who have attacked and raped them. They are compelled to do this to preserve family honor, which is considered tarnished when a girl has sex outside of marriage, regardless of the circumstances.
These types of harmful practices and beliefs must be addressed within communities and families in order to truly end child marriage and achieve gender equality. There are interventions that we know work in both preventing child marriage and mitigating it’s negative lifelong impacts, and which should be undertaken along with the new law. These include ensuring girls stay in school, promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights, investing in economic empowerment of women and girls, and guaranteeing the safety of girls both in and out of the home.
Malawi should also make concerted efforts to enforce the new law. After all, a law is only as good as its implementation. The 10-year prison sentence should be publicized widely and used as a deterrent to those adults who would marry a girl against her will, regardless of her age. At the same time, the government should be careful not penalize the girls themselves.
The new law is undoubtedly a milestone. But it is only part of the solution. When the law is fully implemented and is complemented by other actions to empower and protect girls, we will see real change in Malawi and around the world.
Image: Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development