Severe Consequences of Child Marriage in Malawi

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By Emmie Heiserman

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

Child marriage occurs when children under the age of 18 are married. In countries like Malawi, girls are married at as young as six years old to men often decades older than them. The UN estimates that in developing countries 33% of girls are married before the age of 18. In Malawi that percent rises to a staggering 50%. Nawal Nour, in his article, Health Consequences of Child Marriage in Africa explains, “Child marriage is a human rights violation that prevents girls from obtaining an education, enjoying optimal health, bonding with others their own age, maturing, and ultimately choosing their own life partners.” 

In cultures such as Malawi’s, getting married at a young age is supposed to ensure financial security at a young age despite the fact that this is rarely the case. Child marriage is closely linked to poverty. Girls forced into child marriage are much more likely to discontinue their education at a young age and, as a consequence, are less likely to work in paying jobs throughout their lives. This forces young girls to depend on their much older husbands in a country that is one of the poorest in the world. 

Child marriage also increases the potential for health hazards. Contraception use by girls in child marriages is rare. Young girls are extremely susceptible to pregnancies and birth complications for them and their babies as a consequence of their age. These include stillbirth, miscarriage, and death. In addition, in sub-Saharan girls aged 15-19 are “two- eight times more likely than boys the same age to become infected with HIV.” 

Many communities have taken the issue of child marriage into their own hands to find solutions. For example, in southern Malawi, Senior Chief Inkosi Kachindamoto has confronted child marriage head on by terminating child marriages and sending them to school instead. Education is one of the most effective solutions to combatting child marriage. Gordon Brown in his article Out of Wedlock, into School, explains, “Getting girls into school, keeping them there, and ensuring that they receive a decent quality education is one of the most effective ways of breaking [the cycle of child marriage and poverty].” 

Aside from educating girls and keeping them in school, it is also imperative that the mothers and fathers of girls are educated on the negative effects that child marriage has and how important it is for girls to get an education. Mother and Father groups in Malawi connect children with resources and tools to educate their own parents on how child marriage is a human rights issue. Their goal is for parents to accept their children back into their homes and help them stay in school. They also work to empower communities by educating the public and providing legal resources to victims even though protection from the law is not effective. 

In 1948 the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 16 states that, “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” With young girls unable to give consent, child marriage is a violation of human rights and a form of child abuse. In 2015 the Marriage Act was passed in Malawi. This law aims to set the marriage age to 18. Although this law shows an attempt in change, it does not legally override the constitution, which still allows child marriage with parental consent. These laws are clearly insufficient in preventing child marriage. 

We urge the Malawi government and community leaders of this nation to support women and girls by overriding the constitution to criminalize child marriage and support victims of this abuse.