Too young to wed: Malawi chief sends married children back to school

A Malawi chief took bold steps to address child marriage in her community, reflecting the slow but steady progress against the practice in Malawi and worldwide.

A Malawi chief has decided to take the issue of child marriage into her own hands.

In late June, Inkosi Kachindamoto, a Malawian traditional leader, annulled more than 300 child marriages in her district, ordered the children to school, and fired a number of village heads who sanctioned the marriages, the Nyasa Times reported.

It was a bold move that reflects the slow but steady progress, both in Malawi and globally, against forcing children to marry.

"I have terminated 330 marriages of which 175 were girl-wives and 155 were boy-fathers," Ms. Kachindamoto told the Times. "I don’t want youthful marriages, they must go to school … no child should be found loitering at home or doing household chores during school time."

Child marriage has profound effects on children’s socioeconomic status and health. Girls who marry young tend to drop out of school, and are thus denied the skills that could help lift them and their children out of poverty, according to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of civil society organizations. 

According to the World Health Organization, early marriage also makes girls more vulnerable to HIV infection, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications. The Agency says the latter is a leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls globally.

In addition, marrying young "limits the girls' belief that their opinions matter," says Kristina Lederer, director of development at AGE Africa, a nonprofit working to bring education to girls in Malawi. "It shapes their sense of self-worth."

Kachindamoto’s actions put into practice Malawi’s recent ban on marriages for children under 18 – a critical step in a nation where, according to Reuters, about half of all girls are wed before their 18th birthday, and about one in eight are married before age 15.

"This law is extremely crucial because child marriage is a big, big problem in our country," parliamentarian Jessie Kabwila, who helped push the legislation, told the wire service. "The country will for the first time clearly articulate that we are saying 'No' to child marriage."

Malawi is not alone in its efforts to end the practice.

Over the past 30 years, the percentage of child brides fell by about half in the Middle East and North Africa, The Christian Science Monitor’s Michael Holtz reported. South Asia has seen a similar drop in the number of marriages involving girls under 15, though the marriage of girls under 18 remains common.

Globally, child marriage rates have dropped from 33 percent in 1985 to 26 percent in 2010, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. If the pace of progress persists, the rate may drop to 22 percent by 2030 and 18 percent by 2050, UNICEF predicted.

In July, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), recognizing the practice as a violation of human rights and a barrier to sustainable development, adopted a resolution to end child, early, and forced marriage around the world.

Malawi’s ban on child marriage, which President Peter Mutharika signed into law in April and which imposes a 10-year prison term for violators, was also hailed as a victory for child-marriage opponents worldwide.

Still, advocates are quick to note that progress in the form of laws and resolutions are just the beginning. Ending child marriage means addressing its causes: ingrained traditions, gender inequality, poverty, and lack of education.

"Laws alone are not going to end the practice of child marriage, in Malawi or elsewhere," Helena Minchew wrote for the International Women’s Health Coalition. Promoting reproductive health and rights, investing in economic empowerment of women and girls, and guaranteeing the safety of girls need to be part of any plan that seeks to seriously tackle child marriage, she continued.

"A law is only as good as its implementation," Ms. Minchew added. "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."

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