Old cultural practices 'a threat to Malawi girls'

2016-04-29 16:04
Mercy Allan, whose marriage has been annulled and is now back at school in Malawi. (News24

Mercy Allan, whose marriage has been annulled and is now back at school in Malawi. (News24

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Blantyre – Ancient cultural practices in some parts of Malawi remain a serious threat to the future of the southern African country’s girl child, activist Darlington Harawa has said.

Harawa cited kupimbira as one of the archaic practices that trampled on the rights of most girls in Malawi. Kupimbira was a cultural practice in northern Malawi which entailed giving a young daughter in marriage as repayment for a debt.

"This is a very harmful practice because girls as young as 12-years-old are forced into sexual relationships with older men or are married off to men by their parents. The girls are exchanged for goods or as settlements for outstanding debts by their parents," the girl rights activist told News24.

With over three million Malawians facing hunger this year, Harawa said he feared that such practices would be rampant in rural areas.

Some parents also still practiced a custom called "kuhaha or kuhara” where a man arranged with a girl’s parents to take care of her until she was mature enough to marry him, he said.

The setback with that custom was that the man had the right to stop her schooling whenever he felt like it.

"Even before puberty the man has the right to take her as a wife. The girl cannot refuse such an arrangement because her parents will have already taken the dowry," Harawa said.

Harawa's remarks came as the country's information minister, Patriacia Kaliati told News24 that the government had annulled at least 300 000 child marriages and sent back teenage brides to school last year.

Yvonnie Banda

Former child bride Yvonne Banda has gone back to school after dissolution of her marriage in Malawi (News24)

"Concerted efforts by the government officials, civil society groups, traditional leaders and churches have borne sweet fruits. About 300 000 child marriages were dissolved last year," Kaliati said.

Kaliati, herself an anti-child marriage campaigner attributed the success story to the recent enactment of the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act which pushed the marriage age from 16 to 18.

The enactment of the Act came following reports that child marriages were rampant in Malawi, with statistics revealing that one out of every two girls was married before the age of 18. Some girls were married as early as 12 years.

Minimum age of marriage 

According to Kaliati, while chiefs had put in place by-laws to ban teen marriages, churches had also played a pivotal role by refusing to officiate unions whose brides or grooms were below the age of 18.

Despite the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act pegging the marriage age at 18, conflicting legislation made the minimum age of marriage ambiguous in Malawi. 

The provisions of Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill Act could not overwrite the Constitution, which stipulated that girls and boys ages 15 to 18 could marry with parental consent.

The contradiction came in as the Malawi Constitution did not specifically prohibit the marriage of children under 15, but merely directed the government to "discourage" them.

Read more on:    malawi  |  southern africa  |  child abuse

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