"I've Never Experienced Happiness"’: Child Marriage in Malawi

Report
from Human Rights Watch
Published on 06 Mar 2014 View Original

(Lilongwe, March 6, 2014) – The government of Malawi should increase efforts to end widespread child and forced marriage, or risk worsening poverty, illiteracy, and preventable maternal deaths in the country, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today, ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2014.

According to government statistics, half of the girls in Malawi will be married by their 18th birthday, with some as young as age 9 or 10 being forced to marry.

Malawi’s first woman president, Joyce Banda, who took office in April 2012, should publicly support prompt enactment of the Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Bill (Marriage Bill), which includes vital protections against child marriage, Human Rights Watch said.

The 69-page report, “‘I’ve Never Experienced Happiness’: Child Marriage in Malawi,” documents how child marriage prevents girls and women from participating in all spheres of life. The practice violates the rights to health, to education, to be free from physical, mental, and sexual violence, and to marry only when able and willing to give free and full consent.

“Malawi needs to set a lawful minimum marriage age to protect girls from the abuse, exploitation, and violence that results from child marriage,” said Agnes Odhiambo, Africa women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “President Banda should ensure a lasting legacy for her first term in office by passing the Marriage Bill, which supports the rights of Malawi’s girls and women.”

The Human Rights Watch report is based on in-depth interviews with 80 girls and women in six districts in southern and central Malawi. Interviews were also conducted with government officials, magistrates, child protection workers, police officers in charge of child protection, social welfare officers, traditional and religious leaders, health workers, teachers, legal and women’s rights experts, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations, and donor organizations. Human Rights Watch also observed six Victim Support Units at police stations.

One out of every two girls in Malawi will be married before age 18. The proposed Marriage Law would fix 18 as the clear minimum age of marriage for girls and boys, addressing a major shortfall in Malawi’s efforts to protect girls against child marriage. It would give equal status to parties in all marriages, and would require that all marriages, including customary marriages, be registered with a competent authority.

Girls told Human Rights Watch of being pressured to marry by family members keen to receive dowry payments, because they were pregnant, or they themselves saw marriage as a route, often unfulfilled, to escape poverty. Lucy P., 17, who dropped out of school in 2011, told Human Rights Watch: “I got a boyfriend who could look after me because my parents are poor. After some time he told me to have sex with him. I became pregnant and my mother forced me to marry him.” She said she did not use contraception because, “My boyfriend used to give me money so I could not insist that he use condoms.”

“Adolescent pregnancy is a key driver of child marriage in Malawi,” Odhiambo said. “Girls lack the power to negotiate safer sex with men, do not know about contraception, and are forced by their parents to have sex for money or food. Many end up becoming pregnant and being forced into marriage by their families.”

Government statistics show that between 2010 and 2013, 27,612 girls in primary and 4,053 girls in secondary schools dropped out due to marriage. During the same period, another 14,051 primary school girls and 5,597 secondary school girls dropped out because they were pregnant. In Malawi, the literacy rate for men is 74 percent; for women it is 57 percent.

Girls told Human Rights Watch that marriage interrupted or ended their education, and with it their dreams to be doctors, teachers, or lawyers. Many said that they could not return to school after marriage because of lack of money to pay school fees, lack of child care, unavailability of flexible school programs or adult classes, and the need to do household chores. Others said that their husbands or in-laws would not allow them to continue school after marriage. Changamile F. from Chikwawa district, who dropped out of school at age 16 in her second year of secondary school, told Human Rights Watch, “I really want to go back to school so that I can get a job and live a better life. But I’m very busy with housework and my mother-in-law doesn’t support my going back to school.”

Human Rights Watch found that child marriage exposes girls to gender-based violence, including domestic and sexual violence. Some girls who rejected forced marriages said they were threatened, verbally abused, or thrown out of their homes by their families. Others said they were verbally abused or physically assaulted by their husbands and in-laws. Still others said their husbands abandoned them and left them to care for children without any financial support, increasing the likelihood of their being impoverished. Few girls in Malawi know they have the right to seek help and protection from violence.

Health workers described to Human Rights Watch the reproductive health harms and risks of early pregnancy when girls marry young, including maternal death, obstetric fistula, premature delivery, and anaemia. Malawi’s maternal mortality rate is high at 675 deaths per 100,000 live births. Health workers also talked about the avoidable costs of early pregnancy to the healthcare system.

The government’s failure to mitigate the far-reaching harms of child marriage could have negative implications for Malawi’s future development. Human Rights Watch called on the Malawi government to take immediate and long-term measures to protect girls from child, early, and forced marriage and ensure the fulfillment of their human rights in accordance with its international human rights obligations. The Malawi government, with the support of its development partners, should:

  • Take the necessary legislative steps for the enactment of the Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Bill, and promptly carry out its provisions;

  • Pass into law the Education bill; and once enacted, develop a comprehensive plan to implement the provision on compulsory education;

  • Develop and implement a comprehensive national action plan to prevent and address the consequences of child marriage;

  • Develop and implement a national policy and strategy on adolescent reproductive health;

  • Conduct training for relevant law enforcement officials on their legal responsibilities to investigate and prosecute violence against women, including child marriage, under the applicable law;

  • Support nongovernmental organizations to monitor and evaluate programs on violence against women, including child marriage, and use this information to improve programming; and

  • Support the establishment and maintenance of shelters for survivors of gender-based violence.

“Malawi faces many economic challenges, but the rights of the country’s girls and women should not be sacrificed as a result,” Odhiambo said. “Those reforms that cannot be carried out immediately should still be part of a longer-term policy.”

“‘I’ve Never Experienced Happiness’: Child Marriage in Malawi,” is available at: http://hrw.org/node/123427

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Malawi, please visit: http://www.hrw.org/africa/malawi

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on child marriage, please visit: http://www.hrw.org/topic/womens-rights/child-marriage

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on women’s rights, please visit http://www.hrw.org/topic/womens-rights

For more information, please contact:
In Lilongwe until March 7, and in Nairobi after March 7, for Human Rights Watch, Agnes Odhiambo (English, Kiswahili): +265-992-433-017; or odhiama@hrw.org
In Johannesburg, for Human Rights Watch, Tiseke Kasambala (English, Chichewa): +27-79-220-5254; or kasambt@hrw.org
In Lilongwe for Girls Empowerment Network (GENET), Joyce Mkandawire (English, Chichewa): +265-888-205-408; or Joyce@genetmalawi.org
In Lilongwe, for Adolescent Girls Advocacy and Leadership Initiative, Howard Kasiya (English); +265- 888-597-902; or howardkisiya@yahoo.co.uk
In New York, for Human Rights Watch, Liesl Gerntholtz (English): +1-917-326-9551 (mobile); or gernthl@hrw.org
In London, for Human Rights Watch, David Mepham (English): +44-20-7713-2766; or +44-7572-603995 (mobile); or mephamd@hrw.org

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