This is not surprising because poverty is cited as one of the biggest contributing factors to child marriage and Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries. In April of this year, the Malawian constitution was amended to raise the legal age of marriage with parental consent from 15 to 18 years old. This is a huge first step to ending child marriage. But there is a lot more work to translate this law into reality in the villages.
Last week we went to one of the rural churches that we work in to talk about the reality of child marriages in their community. We went into the village with many assumptions. We believed that parents married off their children to reduce financial burdens when times are hard; we believed that cultural norms allowed children to marry before 18 years old. While these may be true in some instances, we also found some surprising realities.
Parents and guardians disclosed that they felt unprepared to deal with a changing environment in which their children have access to social media, internet, and sexually explicit film. They said that their children come home “different” and they don’t know what to do. Their daughters receive new clothes and other gifts, and they don’t know who gave those gifts to their daughters. The parents say that when they see their daughter’s behavior change and when they start to bring gifts home, these are signs that they will “marry” soon.
On the other hand, daughters see their family’s financial struggles; there is not enough food. A daughter may live with people who are not her biological parents or with a stepfather and feels she has to work hard to help the people she stays with. She is mistreated, unwanted, and seen as a servant. She believes that if she lived somewhere else, and if she got married, she would have a more comfortable life and have more food to eat. She would have her own family. She would be her own boss. Naively, she runs off with an older man who promises her a dream.
In our conversation with parents in this church, most said they don’t think their daughters should marry before they are 18 years old. And yet child marriage is a common occurrence in their village. Why? One possibility: parents and guardians simply don’t know how to talk to their children, so they ignore the situation. As we asked more questions, the parents and the church realized that they needed to do something about this problem in their community. As I sat there listening, I couldn’t help but think how the challenges that these parents face are similar to the challenges parents face in the United States and Canada. We are not so different.
Child marriages will not end with laws and regulations alone. The opportunity to facilitate a conversation for the people in this church has helped them to recognize their role in this problem. Please continue to pray for them as they to figure out how to best help the young girls in their community.
World Renew Malawi
PHOTO TOP: A decision-making matrix that the parents created during the course of discussion. This matrix looks at who has what power to decide what things at both the household and community level.