“If I had a boyfriend, I thought he can help me get out of poverty.”
DAISY IS A 15-year-old mother of two living in Southern Malawi where informal marriage arrangements endanger new laws hoping to reduce the risk of girls becoming child brides.
“I am coming from a very poor family. There’s not always food for all of us.,” Daisy explains further.
“When I got pregnant, I dropped out of school, moved into my boyfriend’s house and got married.”
Child marriage in Malawi are expected to decrease after the introduction of a new marriage law but many girls remain vulnerable to poverty and “harmful traditional practises”.
Girls not Brides
Malawi has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. One out of two Malawian girls will be married by the time they are 18, according to the organisation Girls Not Brides.
However, Malawian president recently signed a bill that raised the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18, which is regarded to be a fundamental step towards ending child marriage.
Nevertheless, civil society and many citizens believe that a large group of girls who enter into informal marriages might need further protection.
Whilst child marriage in Malawi is a very complex and multifaceted issue, according to many girls who got married at an early age, poverty is both a reason and consequence of child marriage.
Most girls who marry young discontinue their education, suffer higher risks of maternal mortality as well as infectious diseases such as AIDS.
According to UNICEF, Malawi suffers one of the highest maternal mortality risks and the 35% of the pregnancies in the country are of teenage girls.
Even though there are no formal marriage ceremony, when a girl gets pregnant and moves in with the person who impregnates her, the community considers the couple to be married.
Since the new marriage law will not be effective on informal marriages, girls like Daisy might remain at risk.
“My husband was beating me regularly. He eventually left me, saying he doesn’t want to live in this village anymore,” Daisy says. Following the separation, Daisy moved back with her family with her two kids and she tries to sell rice to contribute to her household.
She is not sure about the whereabouts of her ex-husband as he had cut all contact with her and her kids.
Elements of coercion and violence are known to be involved in many cases of child marriage.
According to Faith Phiri, director of Girls Empowerment Network, an organisation operating in Malawi, “harmful traditional practises” are also a major contributing factor to child marriages, but they won’t necessarily be eradicated by legislative changes.
The new law will legitimise our efforts to end child marriage as the grassroots community. But it won’t be enough to destroy the harmful traditional practises. We need the community members to genuinely understand why girls shouldn’t get married.
Initiation camps – traditional rite of passages into adulthood – are also a common way many girls get pregnant and end up getting married. Memory Banda, an 18-year-old girls’ rights activist recalls how her younger sister had her first menstruation and then was taken to one.
Initiation camps are ceremonies designed to teach girls about their wifely duties once they start to menstruate. My sister, who is two years younger than me, was taken to one of them.
She was forced into sex by an older man, who wanted to teach her how to sexually please men. She then got pregnant, dropped out of school, and married to this man at the age of 11. I’ve seen the same thing happening to a lot of other girls.”
Although there are fewer communities who practise initiation ceremonies due to the pressure coming from civil society and local authorities, they still exist.
“Thanks to the new law, we’ll now be able to report cases of child marriage to the police,” says Phiri. However, as the new law is silent about initiation camps, its effect on eradicating this tradition remains unknown.