Malawi has made a commitment to amend its conflicting laws on the definition of a child, a move that will help in the fight against child marriage.

A 14-year-old girl holds her baby at her sister’s home in a village in Kanduku, in Malawi’s Mwanza district. She married in September 2013, but her husband chased her away. Her 15-year-old sister, in the background, married when she was 12. Both sisters said they married to escape poverty

© 2014 Human Rights Watch

Malawi’s constitution and the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act define a child as a person below 16 years. But Malawi is also party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, both of which define a child as anyone below 18. Another domestic law, the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, defines a child as a person below 18.

Child marriage is common in Malawi – almost half of all girls marry before they are 18, especially girls between 16 and 18. Harmonizing all laws to define a child as anyone under 18 would help reduce marriage in this critical group. 

When I interviewed magistrates, police officers, and child protection workers in 2014, I found that most did not recognize 16 and 17-year-olds as children because they followed the definition of a child in the constitution. That means that children between 16 and 18 years old are being left out of services and protections they are entitled to as children.

At the African Union Commission meeting in Gambia this week, the government agreed to bring its constitution in line with regional and international standards after the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, a pan-African nongovernmental organization, raised these concerns about Malawi before the African child rights committee.

Once the legal definition of childhood is clear, Malawi should harmonize it with its child protection laws. In 2015, Malawi amended its marriage law to have a minimum marriage age of 18, but the constitution allows children between the ages of 15 and 18 to marry with parental consent, and is unclear on those under 15. Unless Malawi amends its constitution to raise the age of marriage to 18, many girls will continue to suffer the many harms accompanying child marriage.

Malawi: End Widespread Child Marriage

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.