For many adolescent girls and young brides, child marriage is perceived as a death sentence, given the scarring effects for the health, education, and life of girls. Although child marriage is a widespread problem in Malawi, it has so far not received the attention that is needed to end it and children continue to be abused and suffer in silence. It is estimated that every year, 10 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18 globally and 1 in 3 are married before this age in the developing world. In Malawi, 50% of girls marry before the age of 18, 9% are married by the time they reach the age of 15 years, and 20% of girls who should be in school are not.
GENET launched a project aimed at courting community leaders to formulate bylaws to eliminate child marriage in the Chiradzulo district of Malawi. We empowered adolescent girls to be advocates for their own rights – through the use of storytelling techniques called “river of life,” girls’ real life stories were used as an advocacy tool to mobilize for social change.
Negative cultural beliefs and practices, poverty, and legislation that condone child marriages are among the factors that promote this problem. Child brides experience pressure to prove their fertility and thus become pregnant too young, leading to complications such as obstetric fistulae and pregnancy induced hypertension with dire consequences for child brides and their newborns. Child brides are five times more likely to die from childbirth complications and 60% of babies born to child brides are likely to die. Child marriages also increase HIV prevalence and child brides are denied the opportunity to have an education that would empower them economically and socially.
By putting girls’ voices at the center of this process, we are ensuring that laws will protect girls’ best interests. We hope that the national government will follow our lead and as it strengthens our country’s laws against child marriage and put the voices of girls are front and center. In partnership with the adolescent girl leaders who participated, GENET recently launched this new publication with the Malawian Parliament as a part of its advocacy strategy to increase the national age of marriage.
There is hope that lawmakers in Malawi will be debating real issues that affect girls following the introduction of advocacy publication. So often laws are discussed in Parliament, but where is the voice of the girl? It is important that lawmakers interact with girls so they can understand the difficulties and challenges they face.
We all have a role to play in ending child marriage.
Faith Phiri is the director of Girls Empowerment Network in Malawi, and a Fellow in the Adolescent Girls Advocacy & Leadership Initiative. In 2010, GENET was selected to participate in the Adolescent Girls Advocacy & Leadership Initiative, a global program that improves adolescent girls’ health, education, livelihoods, and human rights through advocacy capacity building.