A report on traditional practices in Malawi has recommended strict implementation of the Marriage and Family Relations Act if the country is to win the fight against child marriage.
The Malawi Traditional Practices Survey Report, launched by Malawi Government and UN in July in Lilongwe, has also recommended increasing awareness among communities about the negative consequences of child marriage, development of by-laws and promotion of contraceptives as effective ways of reducing child marriage.
“Child marriage is a violation of children’s rights,” reads the report in part. “In the current study, 42 percent of the female respondents reported being married before the age of 18. Most of the child marriages affect girls.”
The report blames family members, poverty, mistreatment of children and unplanned pregnancies as key drivers of child marriage.
UN Resident Coordinator, Maria Jose Torres, said the report fills the gap on data about the prevalence of harmful practices and specifically harmful sexual initiation rites in Malawi.
“We also had no robust evidence on linkages between child marriage, pregnancy and sexual violence, or on the decision makers and driving forces behind these practices,” said Torres. “Child marriage compromises the development of girls and often results in early pregnancy and social isolation, leaving them poorly educated and reinforcing the gendered nature of poverty.”
She said the report was timely as Malawi Government, UN, European Union and civil society are embarking on a new multi-year programme, called the Spotlight Initiative, which aims to eliminate violence against women and girls, including sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices.
“If we are to successfully tackle these issues and measure impact, through initiatives such as Spotlight, it is imperative that we have reliable and credible evidence,” said Torres.
Director of Child Development Affairs in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, McKnight Kalanda, said government also needs evidence of what is happening in communities to inform its policies and programmes.
“We cannot do business as usual. We need current and reliable data to address the underlying drivers of harmful practices. As we implement the Spotlight Initiative, this knowledge will be crucial to develop effective policies and interventions, and promote good cultural norms,” said Kalanda.
Spotlight Initiative is built around six inter-connected and mutually-reinforcing pillars focusing on laws and policies, institutions, prevention and social norms, services, data, and women’s rights movement, driving innovation and transformative programming to end violence against women and girls.
According to the report, more girls participate in initiation rituals than boys, and more girls in the Southern region participate in initiation ceremonies at 65 percent than their counterparts in the Central and Northern regions at 19 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
“While there are boys and girls who voluntarily enroll for initiation rituals, the majority are influenced by their family members, village elders and village chiefs on the pretext of following traditions. While culture is a crucial part for identity of a society, it should not hinder progress, development and prosperity,” reads the report.
The survey, which mainly focused on child marriage and sexual initiation rituals, was jointly undertaken by the University of Zurich, UNICEF, the National Statistical Office (NSO) and the University of Malawi in 2018.