Malawi’s traditional chief annuls 330 child marriages
In a country where half of girls are married before age 18, UN Women played a key role in lobbying for a new law that raises the legal age to wed, while raising awareness and working with traditional leaders to annul marriages.
Bernadetta Matison, 17 was married at 15 and became pregnant the same year.
“I dropped out of school because I got pregnant,” Matison says. “I’ve seen the evils of getting married at a young age.”
Matison observes: “When I think about it now, I realise that getting married at such a young age isn’t a good thing. At the end of the day, we still lack the things that sent us into the marriage in the first place, like soap and lotion among other basic items. Some even get beaten, which isn’t right.”
In June 2015, Senior Chief Inkosi Kachindamoto annulled 330 customary marriages — of which 175 were child wives and 155 were boy fathers — in Dedza District, in the Central Region of Malawi. Matison was among the girls whose marriage was annulled.
The objective of the annulments was to encourage these youth to return to school and continue a healthy childhood.
Child marriage and pregnancy remain the main causes for high school dropout rates. Many young girls who are out of school have few opportunities to earn a living, which leaves them exposed to various forms of gender-based violence.
Though there are an equal number of boys and girls in lower grades of primary school in Malawi, only 45 per cent of girls stay in school past Standard Eight (8th grade).
While civil marriages can only be terminated under civil law, customary marriages are regulated by custodians of culture. The UN Women Malawi decided to engage with traditional leaders, including Chief Kachindamoto to fight the cultural and religious practices that have allowed child marriages.
“I don’t want youthful marriages,” said Chief Kachindamoto. “They must go to school . . . no child should be found loitering at home or doing household chores during school time.”
The Chief reiterates that opportunities that the youth have today, were not readily available for her because then marrying early was a norm.
Prevalence of child marriages
In 2012, one in every two girls in Malawi was married before the age of 18. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world where it is ranked eighth out of 20 countries considered to have the highest rates.
Through consistent advocacy efforts, UN Women and its partners have played an integral part in raising awareness on this issue and lobbying for legislative change.
Efforts by UN Women included lobbying and training parliamentarians, engaging with traditional leaders and mobilizing civil society to advocate for the enactment of a law.
More than 12 years in the making, Malawi’s Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act was passed by Parliament in February and enacted in April 2015. It raises the minimum age of marriage without parental consent to 18 but has no impact on young women and men already married.
Chief Kachindamoto’s decision was initially met with resistance from other community and opinion leaders, young couples and their parents — especially in marriages where a dowry had been involved — but she continued with door-to-door campaigning in the community with mothers’ groups, members of the village development committees, faith-based leaders and non-governmental organisations lobbying, sensitizing and even annulling marriages.
Chief Kachindamoto also suspended village heads who consented to child marriages, as the community’s bylaws forbade it, even before the new Marriage Act. Now that chiefs have been recognized for their role in the new Act, it makes it easier for the suspensions to be regulated under law.
“I talk to the parents. I tell them: if you educate your girls you will have everything in the future,” says Chief Kachindamoto.
The new Act and annulments have opened a new realm of possibilities for young women like 21-year-old Stella Kalilombe, who was married at 16 and endured an abusive relationship for many years.
“I suffered, but I survived,” says Kalilombe. “This is why I decided to go back to school, to shape that future, a future of hope, peace and happiness for me and my family.”
UN Women will continue to support traditional leaders, as well as the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare to ensure that the recent changes in marital law are fully understood and implemented, and that the Ministry is able to move forward with future work on gender equality.
- Courtesy of UN Women