My last month’s encounter with some young girls from Katuli in Mangochi district was an enlightening experience and it gave me an opportunity to understand how young girls themselves perceive the issue of child marriages.
One thing we all agreed on is the gravity of the malpractice itself and together, the girls explored some of the consequences that accompany the tendency.
I found myself feeling a bit jumpy the moment I realised that each one of my newly found acquaintances was either a survivor of a child marriage or one of her closest pals found herself suffering in the pangs of a child marriage. “We really have a big problem in our midst”, I muttered almost to myself and I should confess, for some moments I was lost in my own thoughts due to the realisation.
Nevertheless, my friends continued with the discussion and one of them stated that girls sometimes make dangerous choices mainly due to immaturity. It was mentioned that young girls easily get enticed with insignificant things which older men use to lure them into loveless marriages.
On the other hand, many others are forced by guardians or parents and sadly, the young girls who are married off in this way are usually below the age of 15 years of age. This is usually the age range which rich village men prefer and I was told by my friends that the men do not care whether 15 years is usually the age of the men’s lastborn child or not. The idea behind is simply to earn a living as the money from the little married girls is expected to trickle down from her family to them (the parents or guardians).
One of my friends in the circle disclosed that she once dropped out of school when she was 15 and in standard 7 of her primary school studies. Her encounter really proved my and probably everyone’s suspicion or well researched opinions that lust is a main driving force towards older men’s tendency to marry little girls.
Just like everyone else in his or her right senses, I wondered how an old person, who has children himself, would want to get sexual gratification from a young girl and get a sense of accomplishment from such a distasteful act with a minor as little as 15. The enigma causes some headaches when you try to think of an older man being happy to be called a husband of a certain minor younger than some if not all of his children. In certain instances, the wife is even younger than the grandchildren of her husband.
One girl stated boldly that our moral fabric has been torn apart and she was of the view that this has nothing to do with tradition and she expressed her optimism that the tendency has just become more prevalent in the recent past. She further added that if it were an issue of culture, it could not have been prevailing and thriving in our society where other harmful cultural practices are slowly but surely giving in to reason and modernity.
The discussions went on and on as the sky started gathering some rain clouds; it was time to wind up our discussions. The girls said a lot and they assured me that the problems which young girls face in their married life with older men are just too much and the need to put a stop to the malpractice is a welcome idea.
Two of the girls whispered into each other’s ear then all of a sudden, just for a few seconds, their faces brightened with what to me appeared like a direct result of contemplating something great and positive. My inherent inquisitiveness forced me to ask them the source of their sudden concealed happiness.
One of the two said that they just realised that the newly instituted Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act will help a lot in the fight against child marriages in Malawi and I agreed.
However, I had a misgiving on this as I quickly remembered some nudging doubts which some law experts have. According to my understanding, their doubt that the Act may not do much in the fight against child marriages is founded.
The doubts are emanating from the fact that the constitution, which is the supreme law of our land, still has a clause which stipulates that girls between the age range of 15 and 18 can marry so long as there is a parental consent. Now, a recent Afrobarometer survey has shown that parents are the ones who perpetrate child marriages.
Furthermore, the experience I have after being in Malawi for so many years, from the time I was born to now, informs me that parents marry off their daughters because of several reasons and among the prominent ones are; to get financial assistance from their son-in-law (as earlier mentioned in this entry), to get lobola (bride price), and to relieve themselves from the task of providing for their daughter’s needs. This clearly shows that the law should not entrust such people (parents) with the task of deciding whether a young girl above the age of 15 can marry or not – they are an interested party that stands to benefit from the marriage of their daughter and therefore incapable of making an objective decision on the matter.
I explained to the girls what some law gurus in Malawi are saying on the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act of 2015. I clearly told the group of young girls that subsection (7) of section 22 of the supreme law in Malawi, somehow lenders the Act powerless.
After a few seconds of silence, the girls fathomed the idea and they quickly pointed out that investing on girl child empowerment is a getaway to child marriages in Malawi.
As a few rain drops started osculating the earth’s atmosphere, my friends underlined that empowering young girls is very key. They told me that enough information can enable them to stand up for their rights, to insist on exercising their right to education and once the girls are able to clearly explain the dangers of child marriages, no other force can compel them to marry at a tender age.
The girls returned to the issue of the constitution and their hope-carrier - the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act. The group stated that Section 22 subsection (7) of the Constitution should be amended forthwith so as to enable the Act to bite offenders.
The shiest one of all the girls, (I later learnt that Faida was her name) added that young girls who also naively marry older men who entice them with presents and promises should be targeted with special messages as well. She finished her remarks by saying that since other young girls sign matrimonial vows because of poverty…economic empowerment to vulnerable girls should also be considered as a very powerful weapon in the fight against child marriages.
As a heavy downpour started falling from the dark sky, we bade farewell to each other and as I was left alone on our meeting place, I said “cry subsection (7) of section 22 of my beloved republican Constitution’.