Good News for Child Protection in Malawi

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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.

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.

In northern Malawi the practice of marrying off teenage girls aged under 18 to older men who pay large dowries has been common for many years. In the past, many community members even considered girls as a source of wealth. Due to the widespread issue of child marriage and children dropping out of school in the area, Plan Malawi trained and supported communities to set up child protection committees in Karonga district.  Myness, now 15 years old, is a beneficiary of the programme. She was rescued from her marriage and resettled back to school. The young girl has been living with her grandmother since she started school because her parents, who live in another village, struggled to care for her and four other siblings due to poverty. Even though she moved to stay with her grandmother, she would skip school because she could not afford to pay her school fees. âÂÂIt happened when I was only 13 years old. My friend who had already found herself a husband convinced me into marriage,â said Myness.
In northern Malawi the practice of marrying off teenage girls aged under 18 to older men who pay large dowries has been common for many years. In the past, many community members even considered girls as a source of wealth. Due to the widespread issue of child marriage and children dropping out of school in the area, Plan Malawi trained and supported communities to set up child protection committees in Karonga district.
Myness, now 15 years old, is a beneficiary of the programme. She was rescued from her marriage and resettled back to school. The young girl has been living with her grandmother since she started school because her parents, who live in another village, struggled to care for her and four other siblings due to poverty. Even though she moved to stay with her grandmother, she would skip school because she could not afford to pay her school fees. âÂÂIt happened when I was only 13 years old. My friend who had already found herself a husband convinced me into marriage,â said Myness.

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.

rajni sharma

Rajni Sharma has over 5 years’ experience as a professional technical writer and technical author. His software publication audiences include system programmers, administrators, operators, and users. Mr. Johnson has also authored and maintained descriptive and user documents for computer