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(Lilongwe) – 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 and 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.”

Selected Accounts
“My parents forced me [to marry]. They said I would be better off married.”
-Chaonaine A., 19, Nkhotakota district, September 24, 2013. Chaonaine married a 21-year-old son of a chief when she was 16. She has four siblings, her parents are poor, and she dropped out of school in standard eight (seventh grade) because they could not buy her uniform or textbooks. Chaonaine’s husband paid her parents MK 8,000 (US$19) as dowry.

“I got married because I wanted to end my problems. I was going to school, but I did not have school uniform. We didn’t have food at home. I stay with my father who sells buckets. My parents are separated and I have nine siblings.”
-Zulu K., 14, was married four months before Human Rights Watch interviewed her, Chikwawa district, September 18, 2013.

“After dating for some time my boyfriend asked my sister … if he could marry me. She said yes. I said no because I was in school. But my mother and sister pressured me to marry my boyfriend because they wanted to get money…. My husband beat me every day. He was verbally abusive…. I reported to my mother that my husband beats me but she forced me to go back to him saying I should endure because that is how marriages are. I left my husband because the beating became too much. But I had nowhere to stay after I left him. I went to my sister and my mother but they chased me away and told me to return to him. A friend of mine agreed to accommodate me and my child for three months. After the three months she told me, ‘Why do you want me to keep looking after you? Why don’t you do the work that I do?’ That is how I started sex work.
-Chikondi R., 18. She married her 19-year-old boyfriend in 2008. She had passed her final primary school exams to go to secondary school.

“My grandmother and sister wanted me to marry a trader by the lakeside. I refused. They threatened me to leave the house if I did not marry the man. I went to my mother’s sister but she also said I had to marry him or leave the house. I accepted because I had nowhere to go.”
-Chanika B., married at 15 and now about 18, Mangochi district, September 21, 2013.

“I am 23-years-old and my husband is 30. I married when I was 15. I have two children ages 9 and 18 months. I did not want to marry but I agreed because of poverty at home. During the marriage ceremony, I was told to respect my husband and never to deny him sex. I was told to bear it when I get problems because that is how marriages are. I found life very difficult after marriage. I was a small girl and I did not know anything about marriage. One time, my stomach started getting big and I was having severe headaches. I was so scared; I did not know what was happening. I went to the hospital and that is when the nurse told me I was five months pregnant.… I am not happy in my marriage because my husband goes away without leaving food and takes long to come back home. My husband also beats me and is a womanizer. I love him so much but he does not love me and that is why he has very many women. I want to leave the marriage but I am waiting for the right time to leave. I am waiting for him to change and if he does not, I will leave him. When my husband comes back from other women and wants sex, I just accept because he is my husband. We do not use condoms because he already infected me with HIV. Marriage is not good for girls. There is no happiness. I want change for girls and that is why I want my story to be heard by all girls out there thinking of marriage.”
-Kalinde J., Chikwawa district, September 18, 2013.

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