NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hopes that child marriage will soon be outlawed in Malawi, where one in two girls marry before the age of 18, are fading amid opposition from traditionalists supporting polygamy and looming elections.
Malawi has the eighth highest rate of child marriage in the world, with some girls marrying as young as nine. When girls marry before the age of 18, their education is usually cut short and they are more likely to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth, be beaten, raped or infected with HIV by their spouses and remain poor.
Hopes of increasing the minimum age for marriage from 15 to 18 were raised in 2012 when Joyce Banda became southern Africa’s first female president. A long time advocate for women’s rights, Banda is an ardent promoter of girls’ right to education to help them break out of the cycle of poverty and abuse.
In November, she issued a directive for a bill raising the age of marriage to be taken to parliament.
But her support appears to have waned as she is fighting to get re-elected in May following Malawi’s biggest corruption scandal. The $4 million “cash-gate” affair has led to the freezing of millions of dollars of aid.
“The signs do not look very good for this marriage bill because even the president, who has been an avid supporter of the bill, made statements that indicated a change of mind,” said Agnes Odhiambo, a women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“I feel that her support for the bill has weakened... so the possibility of passing the bill honestly looks very bleak.”
In November, Banda said that further consultations were needed to ensure that the bill was passed.
“There is no question about my personal commitment to the raising of the marriage age. I am however aware that this is a delicate issue among some traditional leaders, conservative communities, faith leaders and some legislators,” the Malawi News Agency reported her saying.
"That is why, in my opinion, it is best that we do our homework by engaging all stakeholders and bring the bill to parliament at the right time for us to succeed."
Malawi has one of the lowest legal ages of marriage in Africa. The constitution allows children to marry at the age of 15 with their parents consent.
Marriage for children younger than 15 is not explicitly outlawed. Section 22 (8) of the constitution merely says the state shall discourage marriages between persons where either of them is under 15.
International child rights standards recommend 18 as the minimum age for marriage.
In 2009, parliament passed a bill raising the minimum age of marriage to 16 but the president did not assent to it.
One of the problems with the current proposed bill is that it covers a range of issues, including outlawing polygamy, Odhiambo said. Previous efforts to ban polygamy in Malawi have faced stiff opposition, particularly from Muslims.
There has also been controversy over the fact that it would contradict the provisions in the constitution, which is the supreme law in the land, on the age of marriage.
“We are going into elections in May and probably a new parliament will come in,” said Odhiambo.
“I don’t see a lot of hope for it now but I do see in the next parliament that this is something that the government really has to take seriously and make sure that it passes as soon a possible.”