In Malawi, the debate is continuing over the recommended marriage age for girls. The Children and Young Persons Act of Malawi defines a young person as someone under 18. But parliament recently passed a bill that allows Malawian girls to get married at the age of 16 with the consent of their parents.
President Bingu wa Mutharika has refused to sign it.
President Mutharika’s refusal to sign the bill follows stiff resistance from rights groups, who said allowing 16-year-old-girls to get married would likely lead to many to drop out of school to have children.
They say it will also increase maternal mortality because young women are more susceptible to the physical problems that may occur during pregnancy or childbirth, including haemorrhaging. A recent survey indicated that pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19.
Henry Chimunthu-Banda is the speaker of Malawi’s parliament. He says President Mutharika has withheld the bill to allow further review and consultations.
Chimunthu-Banda says it will be debated during next sitting of parliament in November. Meanwhile, rights groups have stepped up consultative meetings, with the views of participants expected to be presented to the legislators before the parliamentary sitting. Some say a reasonable legal age for marriage is between 20 and 23. They say at that age most Malawian girls have finished school and are physically mature enough have babies.
Several civil society organizations had also presented their petition to President Mutharika asking him not to sign the bill. The petition said the people of Malawi, including children -- and especially the girls -- were not thoroughly consulted as it was being developed.
Among the groups that signed the petition were Action Aid-International, Plan-Malawi and Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation.
Patricia Kaliati a Member of Parliament and the minister of women and children’s affairs supports the bill.
“We did consult a number of stakeholders. After all, when they were consulting a number of people during the constitutional review, a number of parents were there. We thought of 21 but by that [age] the girl will maybe be very old. [So, we determined it should be 16 years of age]. But it needs also the consent of the parents that are supposed to advise, look into that and see if it is really ideal for her to get married," she says.
Many of those who share Kaliati’s views say it’s reasonable for a girl to marry by the time she begins to menstruate, from age 14 onwards.
But educators say early marriage and schooling don’t mix. At 16, most girls in Malawi are in primary or secondary school.
Educators say the law would encourage girls to marry and have children while they’re young, ending their chances of continuing school. A local women’s rights group, the Forum for Women Educationists in Malawi, says half of the girls who drop out of school are pregnant.
But Kaliati says marriage does not necessarily have to interfere with a girl’s education.
“To those girls who are able to understand why they are going to school, I don’t think they will be disturbed because of this bill. After all, we had [an earlier version of the] bill that was saying they should [be able to] get married at 18 [without the parents’ consent]. Those who are able to understand the importance of education were able to go ahead with education and get married after finishing school," Kalati explains
Kaliati says those who take advantage of the law and force their 16-year-old girls into marriage will be prosecuted.
Emily Chibowa is a 16-year-old primary school student in the southern district of Mwanza in standard 5. She is against the bill.
“It’s not good for girls to get married the age of 16 [because it] may contradict (interfere with) her right to education, which would make her a better citizen if successfully completed. I think the appropriate years for girls to marry should range between 25 and 30," says Chibowa.
President Bingu wa Mutharika has asked Malawians to thoroughly debate the issue. Earlier he asked Malawians to allow him time to review the international conventions Malawi has signed and also determine what Malawians really want.