Malawi’s parliament took a historic step towards ending child marriage last week, when it removed from its Constitution a provision allowing children between the ages of 15 and 18 to marry with parental consent.

Now, the minimum age of marriage under the Constitution is aligned with the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, a law that sets 18 as the age of marriage. While the Marriage Act was intended to stop child marriage, it could not override the country’s Constitution.

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

This change will help girls like Elina V., interviewed by Human Rights Watch for a 2014 report on child marriage in Malawi.

“I faced a lot of problems in marriage. I was young and did not know how to be a wife,” Elina V. said. At 15, Elina was forced by her mother to marry a 24-year-old man when she became pregnant “because it was her only option.” Elina spoke of the problems she faced in her abusive marriage, at a time when she was still a child herself.

Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, where approximately one out of every two girls marry before age 18. It has the ninth highest rate in Africa.

Girls interviewed for our report spoke of the pressure they faced to marry by family members who wanted to receive dowry payments, because they were pregnant, or because they themselves saw marriage as a means of escaping poverty.

Child marriage has detrimental consequences on the ability of women and girls to realize key human rights, including the rights to health, education, and freedom from violence. It puts girls at a greater risk of maternal mortality and other health risks. Many girls who attend school are forced to drop out when they marry. Child marriage also exposes girls and young women to violence, including marital rape, sexual and domestic violence, and emotional abuse.

In removing this legal loophole, Malawi has taken an important step in addressing a major shortfall in the country’s efforts to protect girls against the harms of child marriage. With clear and consistent laws now regulating marriage, girls in Malawi may finally have the protection they’ve desperately needed.

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.