By Arkangel Tembo, Panos
At 21, Malifa Khobwe is already a divorced mother of two having endured a six -year abusive marriage.
Young expecting mothers at maternity waiting rooms at Tembwe Health Centre in Mchinji district, Central of Malawi.
Malifa, from Chimteka village, Traditional Authority Simphasi in Mchinji is now employed as a housemaid at a suburb in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe in order to take care of her two children following the death of her husband.
She said she was compelled to marry her late sister’s husband at the age of 14 through a Malawian traditional custom known as Kulowakufa.
Malifa’s predicament is faced by a myriad of girls in Malawi who have not been protected by the law and whose fundamental civil liberties have been violated because of traditional practices and norms.
Despite Malawi having ratified various international conventions and declarations on child rights, particularly the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), many girls continue to suffer at the hands of discriminatory laws.
Malawi has put in place various national legislative instruments aimed at guaranteeing the girl child’s legal rights, particularly the Marriage Act, which allows girls to marry at the age of 18, thanks to the February 2017 Constitutional Court landmark judgement which declared 18 years as the legal minimum age of marriage.
Malawi Parliament voted to amend the Constitution to make marriage before the age of 18 illegal, removing a provision that allowed children to marry at 15 with parental consent.
Despite the milestone ruling coupled with international conventions as well as domestic legislative instruments, child marriages remain prevalent in Malawi, particularly in rural communities where customary law has been allowed to override formal law.
According to UNFPA, globally, one in every five girls is married, or in a union, before reaching the age of 18 years. In developing countries, Malawi included, more than 32% of girls are married before the age of 18 and 12% are married before the age of 15. In Malawi approximately one in three girls are married before the age of 18 years.
“When my sister died, I was 12 years old and I was told I would marry her husband when I turned 14,” said Malifa.
“Just a month before my 14th birthday, I became a bride although there was a lot of resistance from my mother, who at one time threatened to commit suicide.”
Malifa said her marriage to her then 35-year-old husband had the blessing of a local traditional leader.
Many girls like Malifa suffer due to the conflict between formal and customary legal systems that is frequently unaddressed.
“In the case of child marriages, customary law has been allowed to prevail over legislative instruments,” said Traditional Authority Mwanza.
“There are increasing cases of child marriages in society and little is being done legally to deal with that.”
T/A Mwanza described the issue of child marriages in Malawi as an elephant in the room. She said there was lack of political will considering the high prevalence rate of child marriages, particularly in rural areas.
“Government through Parliament voted to amend the Constitution to make marriage before the age of 18 illegal, removing a provision that allowed children to marry at 15 with parental consent, but it has been three years since the new constitution was put in place and nothing has materialized as we are still experiencing child marriages on the rise,” said Mwanza.
She said overcoming child marriages requires a multi-pronged approach that ensures all Malawians play their part.
“First of all, society must understand the negative effects of child marriages such as perpetual cycles of poverty, maternal mortality, marginalization of women in positions of leadership, GBV and dragging in development among many issues,” she said.
“Secondly, there must be water-tight laws that should be backed up by a strong justice system that delivers for the best interests of the child.”
Mwanza also lobbied to her fellow chiefs that it is time for certain cultural norms and practices related to sexuality to be scrapped off.
For instance, in consultation with others in her community, she took steps to end two harmful traditional practices in particular.
“In my community, I have eliminated some cultural practices that were deemed harmful to women and girls, and I have made sure I will never see [these] practices happening here again,” she says.
She banished two types of gulewamkulu (masked men who perform ritual dances at traditional ceremonies) – Namkwanya and Kamano – who were sexually harassing women and girls during initiation ceremonies (young girls receive counselling in the transition to adulthood).
“A Namkwanya could come to pick a girl to have sex [with], and he would do that with all the initiates (young girls who are counselled during the initiation ceremony), while wearing his mask to hide his identity,” she said.
While there has been much progress in her community, Traditional Authority Mwanza laments the fact that at times it seems she is the only person who is championing the ending of these ills.
“I find it hard sometimes, because colleagues surrounding me are not [at the] forefront to fight these practices, and [this] makes it easier for perpetrators to run [away] or relocate to a nearby village that is outside my jurisdiction, where they will not be taken to task,” she said. “It would be proper if we collaborated well with [chiefs] from surrounding [areas].”
Plan international Malawi is one of the organization’s which has worked very hard to push for the change in Malawi marriage laws from 16 to 18 years.
According to the organization’s website, (the organization) is still working with communities to end child marriage, empowering young people to advocate and campaign against it, providing safe spaces and support networks for girls at risk of child marriage, helping families understand the consequences of marriage by working with communities, supporting girls to stay in school and working with communities to make sure that girls are valued.
Public Health Programme Manager of Panos Institute Southern Africa Mamoletsane Khati has this to say:
“One of the main challenges with addressing the drivers of child marriage is the contradictions in the legal and policies aimed at curbing child marriage. As Panos, we believe adaptation of the SADC MODEL LAW ON ERADICATING CHILD MARRIAGE AND PROTECTING CHILDREN ALREADY IN MARRIAGE would be able to address the legal and policy gaps in addressing child marriage.
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Samuel Tembenu said his ministry had embarked on sensitization campaign through traditional authority structures with the aim of transforming communities to be more sensitive on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
“We are raising awareness on gender-based violence by talking to gate-keepers of culture, traditional leaders and communities to eradicate this problem,” he said.
“Our ministry has also added its voice to those calling for more protection of the girl child in line with the constitution. This includes calling for alignment of laws to give effect to the constitution.”
The minister also said the law was very clear on child marriages.
“The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 years and in terms of our constitution, only persons who have attained 18 years can be married,” he said.
Tembenu said this provides protection to young girls like Malifa and emphasize that child marriages are not permissible in Malawi.
( By Arkangel Tembo, Panos)