Malawi civil society leaders fault TA Chitera on by-laws against early marriages

Some civil society leaders in Malawi are speaking against a bye-law introduced by traditional authority (TA) Chitera of Chiradzulu district barring her subjects under the age of 21 from getting married.

According to Chitera the by-law is a form of reducing increased cases of early marriage in her area a situation she says has previously led to the highest levels of school dropout among girls.

Early marriage—in particular marriages of under-15s—is more common in rural communities. This is because rural households tend to have more entrenched traditional attitudes and customs, are less affected by external influences and have fewer livelihood options for young women.

The by-laws penalize any traditional leader or parent who authorizes the marriage of a girl younger than 21 years of age.

A young mother carrying her baby gets water at a well at St Luke s District Hospital in Zomba, Malawi, where the rate of child marriage is 50%. Photograph: Simon Rawles/Alamy

A young mother carrying her baby gets water at a well at St Luke s District Hospital in Zomba, Malawi, where the rate of child marriage is 50%. Photograph: Simon Rawles/Alamy

For example the chiefs who authoritise early marriage are penalized by paying seven goats to the traditional authority while parents who force their children into marriage are fined to pay three chickens to their village headman and a goat to the traditional authority.

However Projects Officer for Civil Liberties Committee Felix Chikalira told Malawi’s Capital radio that the move will infringe upon people’s rights because under the country’s laws anyone above the age of 16 can get married with the consent of parents.

“I think there is no basis for her to say that because this is contrary to the constitution which is the supreme law of the land because anything that somebody says should at least go by the constitution,” he said.

But reports show that since the enactment of the bylaws mid last year there has been no cases of child marriage in Chitera’s area where  girls as young as 11-years-old were forced into marriage.

It has been argued that children should be protected from early marriages considering the physical and mental burdens these relationships entail and the need to develop the child intellectually, physically and psychologically. Child marriages undermine almost all the foundational principles of child rights—non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, participation and the child’s best interests.

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