Malawi's parliament has passed a revised marriage bill, raising the legal age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18. The revision comes after years of controversy, and the issue is still far from settled.
The Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations bill, which was passed last week, seeks to replace a widely criticized old law which allowed 15-year-old girls to marry with parental consent.
First drafted in 2006, the bill has undergone several changes to differentiate it from the old law, which rights campaigners said contributed to a high number of school dropouts and early marriages among girls.
Lawmaker Jessie Kabwila. a spokesperson for the leading opposition party in parliament, the Malawi Congress Party, said the bill will have a positive impact.
“This bill illustrates, aims to fight the problem that is the root of high rates of school drop-outs, fistula, high mortality rates, poverty, HIV and AIDS and other forms of abusive and oppressive conduct that lead to girls getting married early,” said Kabwila.
Under the new law, anyone marrying a girl younger than 18 will serve a minimum jail term of 10 years.
Traditional leaders are unhappy with the new law - they say the legal age for marriage should be higher. Many have established laws in their own districts setting the minimum marriage age for a girl at 21.
Traditional Authority Kachindamoto told VOA that 18 is still too early for a Malawian girl to marry because at this age she is still in secondary school.
She said the chiefs will push for further amendments to the law.
Traditional Authority Chowe, of Malawi’s southern district of Mangochi, agrees.
“In fact, as chiefs we are advocating for 21 years because we thought 21 years will be more ideal. The girl child would have grown well and by the time she is 21, she should have finished her form 4 [secondary education] so we were looking along those lines,” said Chowe.
Girls themselves are also divided on the bill.
Shareefa Sayini told VOA that 18 is an appropriate year for a girl to get married because “this is the time a girl can fully enjoy marriage and also a way of avoiding all sorts of temptations that befall adolescents.”
But Wyness Kibokoyo, a journalism student at Malawi Institute for Journalism, disagrees.
“I am not in support of that because at the age of 18, most of the girls are young and they can’t be able to make independent decisions. I think if they can put the age of 21 as the chiefs are advocating for, it can be much better because they (girls) can be able to decide and think what they can do in life,” said Kibokoyo.
Legal experts say the parliament rushed in passing the amended bill before changing a constitutional provision that stipulates young people between 15 and 18 may marry upon parental consent.
“If parliament wanted to change the marriage age in the country what they needed to do was to amend section 22 of the Constitution, not just pass a separate legislation then try to change the age by that. As it is, there is a contradiction between marriage age as set in the bill and marriage age as set in the Constitution,” said Mwiza Nkhata, the dean of law at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi.
Some commentators are asking President Peter Mutharika not to sign off on the new bill until the Malawi Constitution is revised.