Phoebe Chakwana from Traditional Authority Zulu in Mchinji is worried. Child marriages are rampant in her district.
The Standard 7 learner wonders why the country’s laws are not changing the situation.
“I heard that government enacted a number of laws aimed at ending child marriages. I am surprised that nothing is changing. Why is that the case?”
Dan Mtegha Phiri, a resident of Nsanje, wondered whether perpetrators of child marriages are receiving stiff punishment, while Reverend Alex Chirwa of Monkey Bay in Mangochi has unanswered questions on what happens to authorities who ignore child marriage laws.
These questions and concerns were raised during a panel discussion on child marriage held in Lilongwe on Thursday. “Ending Child Marriage in Malawi: A National Call to Action” was organized by Developing Radio Partners to address the challenges the country faces with an increasing number of children marrying at such young ages despite laws prohibiting it.
However, some of Malawi’s notable laws aimed at fighting child marriage differ in terms of the age of a child – and these loopholes have resulted in child marriages.
The Child Care Protection and Justice Act of 2015 defines a child as being under the age of 16. The Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act (2015) sets 18 as the legal age of marriage. In 2017, the Constitution was amended to raise the age from 16 to 18.
Members of Parliament are attempting to harmonize the different laws with new legislation that would set the age of the child at 18 in line with international human rights provisions. A draft of the Miscellaneous Amendment Act also would criminalize perpetrators and witnesses by setting penalties for violators.
In 2020, according to the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, at least 20,000 child marriages were recorded, out of which only 9,000 were annulled.
In Thursday’s discussion, panelists agreed that the government, civil society organisations, development partners, donors and others have to intensify the fight against child marriages.
One of the panelists, Malawi Human Rights Commission acting Director of Child Rights, Priscilla Thawe, said an assessment on the implementation of gender- and child-related laws found a number of factors impeding the fight against child marriages.
She said one of them is that parents lie in court about the age of children who are married.
“There is lack of collaboration between formal and informal justice system. Community leaders do not report such cases to law enforcers,” Thawe said.
Other guests in the panel discussion were High Court Judge Zione Ntaba, Senior Chief Chowe of Mangochi, and Deputy Director of Child Rights in the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare Justin Hamela.
Senior Chief Chowe said there is a need to raise awareness about laws used in the fight against child marriages.
“Sensitization is important. The communities should be aware of the laws. Traditional leaders might have attended sensitization meetings but we need to go to the communities, alerting the parents about the laws,” he said.
Judge Ntaba said the laws should be used alongside change in people’s attitude.
“If you have a parent who puts marriage before education, you will see that whether you have a law that says a child shall not be married before the age of 18, they will still marry that child off before the age of 18. They consider marriage as a solution to their problems. Enforcement has to be taken together with attitude change,” she said.
Hamela said the Miscellaneous Amendment Bill could help ease challenges currently being experienced.
“The Miscellaneous Bill that has been developed is solely on the definition of the child. However, there are some other submissions suggesting that we adjust The Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, which is a bit silent in terms of penalties for those that marry off children,” he said.
He, however, insisted that the laws that are currently in place can still deal with the problem. Hamela adds that community dialogue is another step in helping people understand the law and how child marriage ultimately negatively affects a community. He says resources must be in place for families so they don’t have to consider child marriage as a solution to poverty.