Malawi Amends Constitution to Remove Child Marriage Loophole

Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, where approximately one out of every two girls marry before age 18. It has the ninth highest rate in Africa. However, on Tuesday February 14, 2017, Malawi made a historic amendment to its constitution to fully outlaw child marriage following more than a year-long campaigns by youth groups and organizations. Malawian Parliamentarians voted 131 to 2 in favor of removing the provision allowing children between the ages of 15 and 18 to marry with parental consent. In removing this legal loophole, Malawi has taken an important step in addressing a major shortfall in the country’s efforts to protect girls against the harms of child marriage. With clear and consistent laws now regulating marriage, girls in Malawi may finally have the protection they’ve desperately needed.

 

This change will help girls like Elina V., interviewed by Human Rights Watch for a 2014 report on child marriage in Malawi. “I faced a lot of problems in marriage. I was young and did not know how to be a wife,” Elina V. said. At 15, Elina was forced by her mother to marry a 24-year-old man when she became pregnant “because it was her only option.” Elina spoke of the problems she faced in her abusive marriage, at a time when she was still a child herself. Child marriage has detrimental consequences on the ability of women and girls to realize key human rights, including the rights to health, education, and freedom from violence. It puts girls at a greater risk of maternal mortality and other health risks. Many girls who attend school are forced to drop out when they marry. Child marriage also exposes girls and young women to violence, including marital rape, sexual and domestic violence, and emotional abuse. 

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Child Marriage and Domestic Violence

Violence against women and girls is a global scourge that affects millions of women every year. In fact, it is estimated that one in three women and girls experience violence in their lifetime. Child marriage is a manifestation of that violence. In many cases parents feel it is in their daughter’s best interest to marry at a young age: they believe marriage will protect her against physical or sexual assault. Yet, this belief is often mistaken.

  • Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later. A study conducted by ICRW in two states in India found that girls who were married before 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later.
  • Child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.

There are a number of potential reasons why child marriages may be characterized by greater violence. Women who marry as children are more likely to be uneducated, live in poverty, and subscribe to traditional gender norms. Child marriages are characterized by spousal age gaps, power imbalances, social isolation, and lack of female autonomy. These factors are demonstrated risk factors for domestic violence. It may be that the same inequitable gender norms that give rise to child marriage also perpetuate violence.

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