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Why Malawi’s Ban on Child Marriage is a Game-Changer for Girls’ Education Everywhere

by Joyce Mkandawire and Dr. Denise Raquel Dunning, 

by Joyce Mkandawire, Girls Empowerment Network in Malawi and Dr. Denise Raquel Dunning,  Let Girls Lead

Malawi banned child marriage last month. The new legislation increasing the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18 is a major victory for girls in Malawi, and a game changer for girls’ education everywhere. Here’s why. 

Malawi bears the burden of one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage, with more than half of girls forced out of school and into marriage as children, sometimes as early as age nine. Child marriage in Malawi is the culmination of complex economic, cultural, and religious factors, and both the cause and consequence of grinding poverty, gender-based violence, and the inescapable inequality that girls live with every day. 

Here’s what that looks like: Florence Mwase, an eight-year old Malawian orphan girl, had to give up her education and her dream of becoming a nurse because her Aunt couldn’t afford her school fees, so stayed at home to care for her younger siblings. When Florence turned 13, her Aunt sent her a sexual initiation camp along with the other girls in her community. At the camp, Florence and the girls were forced to participate in ‘kusasa fumbi’ a traditional practice common in southern Malawi to cleanse girls of their ‘childhood dust’ and prepare them to become wives. 

After Florence returned home, her Aunt arranged her marriage to a 27 year old man. Florence lived as a virtual slave to her husband, uneducated, with no way to escape his physical and sexual abuse. After two years, Florence escaped her marriage through the efforts of the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET), with the support of Let Girls Lead. 

The origins of Malawi’s historic ban on child marriage began through GENET’s partnership with Let Girls Lead. Together we launched the “Stop Child Marriage” campaign in 2011, the first movement to end child marriage in Malawi. Through this campaign, we engaged more than 200 girls to become leaders and fight for their rights in the Chiradzulo District of southern Malawi. The girls successfully advocated with 60 village chiefs to ratify and enact by-laws that protect adolescent girls from early marriage and help them stay in school. An external evaluation demonstrates that this girl-led grassroots campaign has transformed community-based practices in southern Malawi and protected thousands of girls from child marriage. 

GENET and Let Girls Lead’s approach is unconventional in that we engage marginalized girls to find their own voices and advocate for change. Rather than deciding what girls need and advocating on their behalf, we enable girls to become leaders who develop their own solutions to the problems they face. This strategy represents a sea change in a culture where girls are forbidden from speaking up for their rights or against established cultural norms such as child marriage, sexual initiation, and female genital mutilation. 

With voices raised, Malawian girls turned small-scale victories in Chiradzulo into a national victory for girls in the form of the 2015 National Marriage Bill. So what’s next? Overcoming deeply held cultural beliefs and traditions will not be easy, especially in outlying rural districts impenetrable by communications from the capital. Local, on the ground education campaigns will be key to disseminating information about the new law and building broad-based support for girls’ rights. In addition, while the new law and penal code mandate a minimum age of 18 for marriage, girls as young as 16 can still leave school and marry with parental consent. GENET, AGANET, and other civil society leaders are pushing for the removal of this loophole, arguing that “parental consent” is too often easily obtained when poor families have too many daughters to feed. 

This victory in Malawi demonstrates that girls are powerful leaders and inspiring agents of change, even in the face of poverty, violence, and discrimination. An independent evaluation of our work demonstrates that this model of investing in girls and their allies is one of the most effective strategies to achieve scalable and sustainable impact for girls, their families, communities, and countries. 

But for this landmark legislation to achieve its full impact in Malawi and in many more countries to come, we as a global community must fulfill our own commitment to invest in girls’ education and health. Although the economic and social returns of investing in girls are undeniable, World Bank research shows that only two pennies of every dollar in international aid funding goes to support programs for girls. 

Our resources must finally begin to follow our research and our rhetoric. Girls in Malawi – and everywhere else – deserve no less. 

Joyce Mkandawire is the founder of the Girls Empowerment Network in Malawi. 

Dr. Denise Dunning founded Let Girls Lead in 2009. Working with girls, young women, and their allies in ten countries in Africa, Asia, and Central America, Let Girls Lead is building a global movement of Champions who protect girls from violence, and ensure they can attend school, stay healthy, and learn skills to escape poverty. We empower girls and their allies to lead social change through advocacy, education, economic empowerment, storytelling, and strategic partnerships.

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