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After Malawi’s new marriage law: what next to end child marriage?

Grace is a mother of two who lives in Malawi. Credit: Lindsay Mgbor | DFID

Last week, the Parliament of Malawi adopted a law that, for the very first time, sets the minimum age of marriage from 16 to 18 years old. The Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill has been hailed as a step forward for Malawi, where 50% of girls are married off before 18.

But while laws are important, they are one tool in the range of measures needed to address child marriage. Enforcement measures and civic education need to complement legislation to have an impact on the lives of girls at risk of child marriage.

(What is a comprehensive approach to addressing child marriage? Explore our interactive Theory of Change to find out).

We spoke to Ephraim Chimwaza, Programme Manager at the Centre for Social Concern and Development (CESOCODE) in Malawi, to find out what needs to happen for this new law to make a real difference on child marriage.

What is your reaction to the new Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations law?

The passing of the law is a positive step and we must give credit to all those who made it possible: women’s rights campaigners, members of Parliament…etc. It is also testament to the work of civil society who pressured government over several years to present the bill to parliament.

However, some are saying that the Parliament has rushed in passing the amended bill before changing Section 22 of the Constitution which stipulates that young people between the ages of 15 and 18 may marry upon parental consent. There is now a legal contradiction. Now we need the President to sign the Bill and then revise the Constitution.

How will this affect your work on child marriage?

The marriage law gives us a new advocacy tool to eliminate child marriage. Previously, we did our advocacy without any legal backing. There was no law that enabled us to prosecute a child marriage and we couldn’t bring cases to court. Now that we have the backing of the law, our work will be a little easier. If we bring someone to court, we stand a chance to see justice given.

Laws can only go so far if they are not implemented. What is needed for the marriage law to be effective?

Before the bill went to parliament, people across the country were asked about their views on child marriage, whether legislation was a good thing and what changes they wanted to see in their communities. Now that the law has passed, we need to go to the people again.

Most of the time, there is no civic education in the villages to talk to parents, village leaders and chiefs about the laws in our country. If communities are not aware that child marriage is illegal and the government starts prosecuting people, it will not change people’s views. It is one thing for Parliament to pass the law; it’s another thing to make sure it reaches everyone. There is a need – and a responsibility – for NGOs to do this work and for the government to make sure awareness-raising takes place.

In particular, we need to work closely with community and traditional leaders, educate them about the law and the consequences of child marriage. To get rid of harmful cultural practices, traditional leaders will have to sit down with their subjects in their communities and start a conversation about how to modernise traditions so that they no longer harm girls.

Finally, we needed political will to pass the law and we will need political will to implement it. The government should give the judiciary enough power and means, and set up mechanisms to prosecute cases swiftly. If a case goes to court and justice is delayed, then justice cannot be done. One way would be to employ special magistrates that deal with child marriage cases.

What is your message to the Government of Malawi now that the law has passed?

Our message is: work hand in hand with civil society to make sure that the new marriage law is implemented. Civil society does its part in the community, and the government has a role to play to end child marriage too.

We hope that the Ministry of Children and Social Welfare will continue to look into the issue of child marriage Malawi, listen to our voices and take the necessary steps to implement the law.

Education is a tool to sustain the development of the girl and her community. The government should invest in girls’ education programmes and support adolescent girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health services. As I mentioned before, civic education and community advocacy are crucial to ensure the law makes a difference and the government should support these efforts too.

Are you hopeful that this marks the beginning of an end to child marriage in Malawi?

We have a government that has shown political will. We have a national platform of NGOs that worked tirelessly for this law to pass. With this structure in place, we are hopeful that we can continue our work, hand in hand with the government, to end child marriage in Malawi.

What is your message to other civil society groups working to end child marriage?

We want to learn from civil society groups in countries that already have minimum age of marriage laws: how are they using the law as an advocacy tool? How does the law work there? How can we learn from their experiences? It’s important for civil society organisations to support one another beyond borders and work towards our mutual goal of ending child marriage.