by Jamison Maeda
Saturday, March 8th is International Women’s Day. But for most women and young girls in Malawi, it’s just another day. In Malawi half of the population struggle with poverty and hunger. Over 14% of Malawians are living with HIV/AIDS, and the average person will live to be only 53. And like so many other regions around the globe, women and girls are the most vulnerable. The most widespread threat to the girls of Malawi is child marriage, which is forced onto girls sometimes as young as 10 years old.
Because Malawi has limited financial resources, family members frequently force young girls into marriage in order to collect a dowry of MK 8,000 (approximately $19/€13.50.) Another factor is a severe lack of reproductive education. Young girls who become pregnant are frequently forced to marry, despite their age, and the repercussions of a forced marriage are substantial and last a lifetime. Young girls are often forced to drop out of school to marry and are forbidden from ever returning. The literacy rate for Malawian women is less than 57%.
“Society still clings to the education of the boy, and sees the girl as a trading tool. In the North, girls as early as 10 are being traded off for the family to gain. After that, the women become owned and powerless…” says Seodi White, Malawi’s coordinator for the Women in Law in Southern Africa Research Trust.
Beyond the obvious benefit for girls and young women, a ban on child marriage in Malawi would benefit the country as a whole. Malawi, which is already struggling with significant financial challenges, will be devastated by another generation of women without access to education, reproductive health information, and improved maternal medical services. Malawi currently has one of the highest maternal death rates in the world.
A bill has been proposed called The Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Bill. This proposed law would grant equal status to both parties in the marriage and would require that all marriages be registered with Malawian authorities. It would also set the minimum marriage age at 18. President Joyce Banda says she cannot make laws as president, but what she can do is promote and support the Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Bill.
“Malawi needs to set a lawful minimum marriage age to protect girls from the abuse, exploitation, and violence that result from child marriage. Banda should ensure a lasting legacy for her first term in office by passing the Marriage Bill which supports the rights of the country’s girls and women” says Agnes Odhiambo, researcher at Human Rights Watch.
We can all take advantage of this International Women’s Day by telling our friends, and using social media to raise awareness of the issue of child marriage in Malawi and around the world.