Malawi Finally Outlaws Child Marriage

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But it’s still legal in Bangladesh, Tanzania, and New York City.
It’s finally happened — Malawi has officially outlawed child marriage.

Previously, children as young as 15 could marry with parental consent. Now, it will be illegal to marry if you are under 18.

It’s been a long time coming. After years of campaigning, Parliament voted to change the constitution on February 14. Now, President Peter Mutharika has finally signed the constitutional amendment, passing The Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act into law.

According to Voice of America, anybody convicted of marrying a minor will now face five years imprisonment and a $143 fine. Previous loopholes permitting child marriage with parental consent have been closed.

Jessie Kabwila, chairperson of the women’s caucus of Malawi’s parliament, praised the move.

“That amendment is showing exactly the aspiration of Malawians — that we are saying ‘no’ in totality to child marriage,” she said. “The loopholes that were remaining of giving consent to parents are no longer there.”

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) reports that over the next decade 150 million girls will be married before they turn 18. Right now, approximately a third of all girls in developing countries are married by the same age, whilst one in nine are married under the age of 15. Malawi has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world — in 2010, half of women aged 20-24 had married before their 18th birthday.

Child marriage is deemed a human rights violation by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). In Malawi, the next challenge is to enforce the law — taking on heavily entrenched cultural practices that especially flourish in areas of high poverty. Often, prospective husbands persuade poor families to hand over their daughters with dowries, offering financial incentives in exchange for a child’s hand in marriage.

Gambia, Mozambique, Zambia and Afghanistan join a growing coalition of developing countries with comprehensive plans in place to bury child marriage once and for all. However, there’s still much work to do. Bangladesh recently abolished a minimum marrying age, so long as the ceremony obtained parental consent. In Tanzania, a man can marry a girl as young as 14 with either parental consent or a court order. Even in New York, the city that never sleeps has been caught napping on legislative loopholes — a 14-year-old can marry with the permission of a judge.

All over the world, sexist laws are upheld by government. But there is significant cause for optimism. In Bangladesh, teenagers are literally knocking on as many doors as they can to talk families out of the practice. In the case of Tanzania, a High Court ruling last year declared that child marriage was unconstitutional. Yet the practise continues.

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