Lilongwe — The Malawi Parliament on Tuesday passed a landmark bill to amend the Constitution and harmonise the age of a child with other relevant laws thereby securing the protection of children against early marriage.
There has been an outcry amongst Malawians led by civil society organisations that Section 14 of the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act of 2015 which put the age of marriage at 18 was in conflict with the Constitution, which put the age of a child at 16.
Section 23 of the Constitution exposed children aged between 16 and 18 to harmful cultural practices such as early marriage, according to Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu.
Following the passing of the Constitution (amendment) bill, Malawi becomes in compliance with the African Charter and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which provides that a child is aged 18 and below and must be accorded all the protection by the State and its instruments.
Members of Parliament in Malawi, from the government and opposition were in full support of the bill. Salima North West MP Jessie Kabwila said the amendment to the Constitution will ensure coherence between the various pieces of legislation which protect the rights of the child.
This, she said, would make it easier to implement programmes aimed at reducing early marriage, increasing access to education especially for girls as well as reducing child labour. “The age of marriage is an issue that Malawians have spoken strongly about. When there is a law against children getting married before they are 18, more children will go to school, there will be less children dying before they are one year old and these will participate in the development of the country,” Kabwila said.
Apart from the Constitution and Marriage Act, another legislation which protects the child in Malawi is the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act enacted in 2010. Children born to teenage mothers risk increased exposure to illnesses and child death while teenage mothers are more likely to experience pregnancy related complications apart from dropping out of school which further decreases their ability to be economically empowered.
According to the 2015/16 Demographic Health Survey, 29 percent of adolescents aged 15 to 19 in Malawi have begun having children, especially those in the rural areas where education facilities are poor resulting in high dropout rates. The DHS found that the more girls are educated, the more they will delay having babies.
“More than half of teenagers age 15 to 19 (54 percent) with no education have begun childbearing compared with 32 percent of teenagers who have attained primary education and 19 percent of those who have attained the secondary education,” the DHS reads.
According to United Nations Populations Fund, globally, complications of pregnancy are the second leading killer of girls aged 15 to 19. And in developing countries, nine out of 10 births to adolescent girls take place within a marriage or union.