(not)child’s play

I am extremely delighted to hear that Malawi has banned child marriages, or more specifically, girl-child marriages. Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world – forget playing with friends and going to school, girl-wives must accept a lifetime of submission to look after the household and their husbands.

When you hear the words “child marriage” you know it is a problem but it may not seem like a life threatening problem in comparison to β€œpoverty” or β€œviolence” because the term marriage is cloaked with love and respect and a lifelong unity, so how is that a bad thing? Firstly, poverty is one of the primary reasons girls are married – their families cannot afford to look after them, and secondly, abuse within marriage is rife.

Child marriages destroy a girl’s childhood, it propels them into womanhood at a meteoric speed, yet denies them an education or any chance of financial independence. When I was 11 years old, I had barely understood what changes my body was going through and what that meant, I cannot imagine being married and having children at that age. Thousands of girls don’t need to imagine what that is like, they live the reality – from as early as 9 years old. It is a reality that is much darker than playing house, these young girls are sent to sexual initiation camps to β€œcleanse” them of their youth where they are forced to have sex with an older man. It pains me to think of the trauma this causes, however, it does not stop there. Once married, girls are often subjected to abuse by their husbands (who are grown men) – emotionally, sexually, physically and verbally. It infringes on their right to dignity, among other fundamental rights.

I read an article by an attorney who wrote that, after seeing the β€œwomen” in Malawi with their babies and husbands, she turned to the law, hoping that it would protect children. To summarize, she found out that the Constitution of Malawi did not prohibit child marriages, and children were classified as anyone under that age of 16 years old. Our South African Constitution is, in my opinion, one of the best on the continent. It explicitly states and protects ALL our fundamental rights and unlike, Malawi, is not in conflict with the international standards of the definition of childhood. So, reading that, I felt hopeful that if we are so progressive with our legislation, it will not be long until other African countries follow.

And follow they did – February 2015: the Marriage, Divorce & Family Relations Bill of 2015 was promulgated. This bill prohibits the marriage of children under the age of 18 years old. Obviously, implementation is key but I am incredibly optimistic now that it is legally enforceable. We must commend the thousands of activists that led the campaign to abolish girl-child marriage.

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