Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with approximately 1 in 2 girls married before the age of 18. Teenage pregnancies, 26% of all pregnancies annually, are high and contribute to 20-30% of maternal deaths in the country. In addition, 1 in 4 girls drop out of school due to pregnancy. Although child marriage is a concern for both boys and girls, the majority of children who are married before the age of 18 are girls and it therefore affect them most.
The practice of child marriage obstructs a girl’s development and condemns her to a vicious cycle of poverty. Child marriage forces girls out of school, which denies them the right to education and the ability to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence needed to make informed decisions and to live a healthy life. In addition, the practice of child marriage makes girls more vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual abuse and results in child bearing before girls are emotionally and physically prepared. This places them at an increased risk of experiencing complications during pregnancy and childbirth. In Malawi, as in many other countries around the world, one of the root causes of child marriage is poverty.
Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, with 50.7% of the population living below the national poverty line. The Malawian government faces challenges such as rapid population growth, increasing pressure on agricultural lands and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. The economy is undiversified and heavily dependent on agriculture, which makes it vulnerable to external shocks. Malawi has an extremely large sub-population of youth, with 1 out of 3 between the ages of 10 and 24 years old. There are over 5 million adolescents in need of youth friendly health services, which is almost one-third of Malawi’s population. This number is expected to continue to grow until at least 2020. Youth friendly health services are services that are accessible to all adolescents and that should meet the needs of young people and improve their health. In Malawi, most interventions in provision of sexual and reproductive health services for young people have focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and control. There have been only few interventions that have focused on reducing teenage pregnancies and eliminating child marriage. This is a problem because adolescent boys and girls often do not have access to modern family planning services, which contributes to the high number of teenage pregnancies in the country. As a result of these pregnancies, parents decide to marry their children. In addition, a lack of youth friendly health services has resulted in low comprehensive knowledge of sexual and reproductive health and rights, high adolescent birth rates, and high school drop-out rates among girls due to pregnancy.
Why child marriage?
Many Malawian communities consider child marriage as being in the best interest of girls and their families. The drivers for parents to marry their daughters at a young age can be described as a combination of economic, cultural and social factors. One common economic reason for child marriage is that some families see it as an important way to improve their economic status. It can improve their status in two different ways: when a girl gets married the groom sometimes has to pay a dowry to the bride’s family or the daughter’s husband continually supports the girl’s family. Parents may also see child marriage as a route to escape poverty when they marry their daughter into a more financially stable household. In addition, child marriage can be seen as an integral part of Malawi’s patriarchal culture that subordinates women and girls and encourages early sexual initiation and marriage. Early sexual initiation is common in Malawi, with 20.3% of boys and 5.3% of girls having sexual intercourse at the age of 10. Even though adolescent pregnancy is widespread in Malawi, it is highly stigmatized. Child marriage is therefore seen as a way to protect girls who get pregnant from undermining family honour. A social argument for child marriage is that it establishes ties between families and communities. It can also improve the social status of the girl’s family when they marry her to a good and wealthy family.
However child marriage can have physical, psychological and social consequences. One of the physical health consequences might be early pregnancy and childbirth. Girls who fall pregnant before the age of 18 have an increased risk of getting complications such as obstructed labour, which is the result of a girl’s pelvis being too small to deliver a baby. This can lead to maternal mortality, infant mortality or obstetric fistula. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the number one cause of death among young women aged 15-19. Child marriage does not only affect the maternal health of girls, but it also contributes to the prevalence of HIV. Since young brides cannot abstain from sex and have often partners who are older and more experienced, girls are likely to get infected. The fact that girls are in many cases married to an older man decreases their negotiating power within the household. Girls are also at an increased risk of experiencing domestic violence and they get deprived from the opportunity to obtain an education.
Child marriage in Mangochi district
Mangochi district is located in the southern region of Malawi and has a young population: 2 out of 3 people in the district are under the age of 25. Mangochi district has the highest proportion of teenage pregnancies in the country, with 48% of adolescents who have started childbearing. Some cultural practices that occur in this district fuel teenage pregnancies and child marriage. One of these centuries-old practices is a traditional initiation ceremony called ‘kusasa fumbi’, which means ‘cleaning the dust’. This ceremony is common in the Yao community, the dominant tribe in Mangochi. During this ceremony, girls as young as 8 years old learn how to engage in sexual acts and they are expected to have sex with an older man as part of a cleansing ritual. Girls are told that they have to sleep with a man to get rid of child ‘dust’ and to become a woman. If they refuse to do this, girls are told that their bodies will get diseased. In some instances a man, nicknamed a hyena, is chosen to have sexual intercourse with newly initiated girls as part of the rite of passage. The hyena does not wear protection, since it is believed that he is incapable of catching diseases, which places the young girls at risk of contracting HIV. This initiation ceremony is harmful for girls and fuels child marriage. Moreover, girls receive misleading sex education during the ceremony. They are told how to treat a man in bed at a very young age, but the risks of teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and ways to protect oneself are not discussed. Amref Health Africa is trying to reduce teenage pregnancies and end child marriages in Mangochi district. They do so by educating adolescents, and other community members, about sexual and reproductive health and rights and the importance of obtaining an education. Amref Health Africa also improves young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, such as modern family planning methods. The story in the last section of this article illustrates the slow changes that are currently taking place in Malawian communities. Malawi’s government has recently also increased its efforts to outlaw child marriage.
Progress being made
In February 2017, the Malawian Parliament adopted a constitutional amendment that changes the minimum age of marriage from 15 (with parental consent) to 18 years old for both boys and girls. This historic amendment is the result of years of campaigning by youth groups and non-governmental organizations and it is an important decision towards advancing gender equality in the country. It also brings the Constitution in line with the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, which has been enacted by the Parliament in 2015 and sets the minimum age of marriage at 18. Clara Mah Anyangwe, UN Women Country Representative in Malawi, expresses the importance of this amendment: “By changing the constitutional age of marriage in Malawi, the government has also changed the narrative of the lives of countless Malawian girls so that girls can just be girls; not brides or wives.” The reform is a first step in empowering young girls so that they can resist any pressure to be forced into marriage. When girls marry later and delay pregnancy beyond their adolescence, they have a better chance of staying healthier, obtaining an education and building a better life for themselves and their families. This will also positively contribute to Malawi’s future development.
The story of Martha
Martha Mphwere is a 20-year-old girl who lives in Mdzodzo village in Mangochi district. Just like many other girls in most parts of this district, Martha could not resist from engaging in unprotected sex until she became pregnant at the age of 17 in 2012. Martha was then forced into marriage because her parents could not allow staying with her, considering that getting pregnant meant that she was old enough to take care of herself and the baby she was expecting. She therefore married her mate in the same year and delivered her first child. However, life was very tough for them considering that they were both very young and lacked basic needs to sustain their family. “Marriage life used to be tough as we could not financially support our family and our little child because we had no any livelihood”, said Martha.
One day in 2014, Martha attended a meeting entitled ‘life changing’ at Nankumba Health Centre which was organized by officials from Amref Health Africa and the District Youth Office in her village. The meeting was aimed at reviving youth clubs in the area that were inactive and to champion the fight against early pregnancies and child marriages. The meeting focused on encouraging young people to form youth clubs so that they should be well equipped with information on the importance of education in order to reduce school drop out rates which were rampant in the area. The meeting also enlightened them on their sexual and reproductive health and rights in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies through adoption and utilisation of modern family planning methods. The facilitators also encouraged those who dropped out of school to go back to school.
Participating in this meeting was a dream come true for Martha and she was impressed by the information she received. This prompted her to end her marriage, in which she succeeded and her parents fully supported her. She also immediately joined the youth clubs in her village while waiting for the school calendar. Her wish to go back to school grew bigger and she enrolled in form one at Thema Community Day Secondary School in the same year. According to her teacher, Martha’s performance in school is excellent. “Martha is performing well in class and if she continues working hard she will pass her Junior Certificate and Malawi School Certificate of Education Examinations.” The boy that married her painfully let Martha go so that she could continue her education. Martha now frequently visits Nankumba Health Centre to attend lessons on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
*Patricia Vermeulen is CEO of Amref Flying Doctors in the Netherlands.