By Faiza Jama Mohamed, Equality Now Nairobi Office Director
Alile was only 14 when her ordeal began in Malawi one afternoon in 2011. She was taken to a house and repeatedly raped by two men before being held captive overnight.
Her family members were shocked that she had spent the night away from home and would not listen to her explanation. They were afraid of being shamed in the community and did not report the rapes to the police due to fear of bringing disgrace and humiliation on the family. Instead, her family forced Alile into marrying one of the rapists. Soon afterwards, she gave birth, but her baby died within a few short months.
Belatedly, and with assistance from the community, the Foundation for Children’s Rights (FCR) found out about Alile’s case and reported it to the police. FCR gave Alile counseling and encouraged her back to school, where she remains. Although FCR received promises from district officials that the two men would be brought to justice, several years later, we understand that no action has been taken.
In response to the experiences of countless girls like Alile and after many years of concerted national and international pressure, Malawi has just taken a huge leap forward for girls by introducing its Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill, which sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 – or 16 if parental consent is given. The Malawi Parliament voted unanimously to pass the bill earlier this month, and the president is expected to sign the bill into law any day now.
Eighteen is the agreed minimum age of marriage in international policy, reflected in Equality Now’s report on Protecting the Girl Child – Using the law to end child, early and forced marriage and related human rights violations. This report calls on all governments to take a comprehensive approach to ending child marriage — including by amending discriminatory laws, which allow for lower ages of marriage for females than for males.
Alile’s case reveals a number of shortfalls and gaps in Malawi’s child protection policy, its implementation and the community knowledge of both of these. FCR maintains that people have come to believe that keeping family ties and never suffering public shame are more important than protecting their own child. They would rather have their daughter stay in a bad marriage than be known to have had children out of wedlock.
When children are raped, cases are rarely reported in order to save the families’ “reputation.” Official resources are usually stretched and inadequate to deal with suspected cases of childhood sexual violence. The same is true of the police.
The prevalent belief that a girl should marry as early as possible to maximize her fertility means that child marriage is deeply entrenched in Malawi’s society. However, this state of affairs is not specific to Malawi alone. It is common to many if not all countries where child marriage is prevalent.
Updating harmful social and cultural norms can be an uphill battle, but it is vital to do this in conjunction with ensuring that good minimum age of marriage laws are enacted and implemented to at least give girls a level playing field.
It is vital to recognize too that child marriage has a direct link to other abuses such as female genital mutilation (FGM), sex trafficking and domestic violence. Since many forms of violence against women and girls are interlinked, it is essential that governments recognize these relationships and ensure that their country’s laws fully empower rather than impede a girl or woman on her journey through life.
Malawi’s vote in favor of girls’ rights comes at a time when momentum is growing toward legal equality for women and girls in many countries across the African continent. In late January, Tunisia signed the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, a home-grown, pan-African legislative tool, which only Egypt and Botswana have yet to sign. Tanzania just re-affirmed its commitment to intensify efforts to end both child marriage and FGM, while Mozambique rejected a discriminatory penal code, which almost became law.
African women are proud to have spearheaded this change. The Africa we want is getting closer by the day.
Faiza Jama Mohamed is Equality Now’s Nairobi Office Director. Equality Now’s Nairobi office is the secretariat for the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR), a coalition of 44 civil society organizations working across 24 countries. Established in 2004, SOAWR works to ensure that the rights of girls and women as articulated in the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa are prioritized by policy makers on the African continent.