Let Girls Lead helps to reform a marriage law

Malawi is raising the legal age for girls to marry from 15 to 18, improving their lives.

Courtesy of Let Girls Lead
Denise Dunning (c.), founder of Let Girls Lead, sits with Girls Empowerment Network members in Blantyre, Malawi.

When the parliament of Malawi recently passed a new law raising the legal age for marriage from 15 to 18, the women and girls who had long fought for the change didn’t just cheer – they danced.

Among them was Joyce Mkandawire, cofounder of the southeastern African country’s Girls Empowerment Network (GENET).

“I jumped to the moon and back.... This is an amazing win for girls in Malawi and for girls everywhere,” Ms. Mkandawire told Denise Dunning, the founder of Let Girls Lead, which partners with groups like GENET to empower girls in developing countries.

Monitor readers first read about GENET’s efforts to end child marriage in Malawi in a People Making a Difference profile of Ms. Dunning one year ago (see http://bit.ly/LetGirlsLead).

At the time, Let Girls Lead had helped various girls’ advocates change policies that affected about 3 million girls in Latin America and Africa. That will jump to about 7 million if Malawi’s marriage-age bill is signed into law.

(That’s expected soon, though some have said that in order for it to take effect a corresponding change also needs to be made to the country’s Constitution, Voice of America reports.)

The shift comes after years of work among girls and their supporters, and a growing number of local chiefs who see the value of education for girls. More than half of Malawian girls are married before age 18, and many have been vulnerable to sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and threats to their health from early pregnancy and childbirth.

Let Girls Lead continues to support local changemakers after giving them initial training to help them network and develop strategies to scale up their home-grown solutions to girls’ challenges.

The next step in Malawi will be for girls to participate in ensuring the new law is enforced.

Since the Monitor last spoke with Ms. Dunning, Let Girls Lead has partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to bring the Let Girls Lead model to advocates in Nigeria who are working to improve maternal and newborn health.

Let Girls Lead has also teamed up with Nike Inc. and UNICEF to help girls ages 10 to 19 in several countries prepare to advocate for themselves as part of a United Nations process that is creating new sustainable development goals around the world.

On March 10, a Let Girls Lead leader gave a keynote address at the United Nations as part of a progress report on the Every Woman Every Child Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health 2010-2015. Let Girls Lead members from Ethiopia and Uganda also spoke as part of a session of the UN's Commission on the Status of Women.

Watching GENET become involved in the high-level decisionmaking on child marriage in Malawi has been gratifying, Dunning says. "It’s exciting to see how you crack a door and they have just run with it.”

The Monitor article, she says, helped “to bring to life what we do and why it matters,”which in turn paved the way for additional media attention.​

• To learn more, visit letgirlslead.org.

[This article is an updated version of a story that ran in the March 16 dated print edition.]

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