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Tackling child marriage in Malawi

In Malawi, half of all girls are married before the age of 18, many of them forced into unions at a very young age. Now, the government of Malawi is making efforts to tackle the issue by seeking to increase the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18.

This move comes at a time when the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women is debating whether ending child marriage should factor in proposals for eliminating violence against women. Studies have shown that women married at a young age are more likely to suffer from violence in the home.

Malawi hopes to push through legislation to raise the legal age of marriage by the end of next year. The change is principally seen as a way to keep more girls in education and to help reduce maternal mortality rates. In Malawi, there are 675 deaths for every 100,000 live births each year and a recent survey has revealed that most deaths occur in young women aged between 15 and 19. This is because girls face higher risks of complications in pregnancy and child birth.

Speaking to the Guardian, Malawi’s health minister admitted that one of her government’s biggest worries was the number of women “getting married early” which was “causing a lot of maternal deaths”.  The minister spoke of the concern of Malawi’s president, Joyce Banda, that “birth should not be a death sentence”.

Efforts to reduce the rates of child marriage have been made over recent years in Malawi. But under the presidency of Ms Banda, the profile of this issue has been raised. It is now included in the government’s ‘Safe Motherhood initiative’ which involves encouraging local communities to keep girls in school and warning of the health dangers which can ensue from early marriage.

However, Malawian ministers understand that poverty is a key driver for marrying girls off young. Many poor families see girls as a drain on household resources and receiving a ‘bride price’ of money or livestock in exchange for daughters can be tempting in hard times. Cultural factors also play a part, particularly in regions where bride kidnapping is still accepted. Families unable to afford a bride price sometimes resort to abducting girls, knowing the girls may then be given no choice but to marry the man who has kidnapped them. Where this practice is prevalent, families will even marry their daughters off early to prevent it happening. Therefore, any new law in Malawi will need to be enforced if such practices are to be deterred and the number of child brides reduced.

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