Malawi has one of the highest rates of early marriage in the world, with one out of every two girls married by the age of 18, according to the umbrella group Girls Not Brides. After immense pressure from activists and grassroots organizations, Malawian President Peter Mutharika signed a bill last year that raised the minimum age of legal marriage from 15 to 18.
The new bill is seen as a significant step toward ending child marriage in the country and has been celebrated by activists and civil society. But according to Faith Phiri, the executive director of Girls Empowerment Network, a grassroots organization operating to advance girls’ rights in Malawi that operates in Chiradzulu, “The job is far from done.”
The law gives support to those fighting early marriage by giving them the right, for example, to report to the police anyone seen forcing their young daughter to marry. “But solving this issue requires much more than new laws,” says Phiri. “Most importantly, it requires community participation and changes in attitude.”
So activists and local groups are working in rural communities to raise awareness about the new law. In their own ways, they are creating dialogue and spreading the message about the end of child marriage.
A Chief Takes the Law Into Her Own Hands
In Malawi, the tradition of local leadership means village and district chiefs have the final word over the affairs of their community. Decisions regarding marriage and divorce traditionally have to be approved by local authorities, giving village chiefs the power to end child marriages in their communities.
“I made the minimum age of marriage 22 in my own village,” says Ida Alli, the senior chief of Chiradzulu District.
Alli, who was declared a champion of women’s empowerment by former president Joyce Banda, takes pride in making it as hard as possible for people in her village to marry off their daughters. “If I hear rumors that someone might be interested in marrying their daughters off, I personally go to their home, I invite the man’s family, too, and talk to both of the families,” she says. “We talk for hours, and usually for days. I warn them about the dangers of marrying young and the importance of education.”
In the event that talking with the families doesn’t work and a girl needs further protection, Alli invites the girl to live with her at her farm and ensures that she goes to school. The chief also supports vulnerable girls in their efforts to find work and open small businesses.
Alli is aware of the privilege of her position as a traditional leader, and her potential influence on the decisions of her fellow villagers. “In our culture, reputation in one’s community is important,” says Alli. “A lot of people don’t want to do something that is not approved by traditional authorities.”
Fathers and Daughters Open Up
Fathers play a key role in determining whether or not their daughters will get married at a young age, but in patriarchal settings, fathers and daughters rarely have an open dialogue about the issue.
To help family members have honest discussions about early marriage, Girls Empowerment Network got together with community activists and launched Father-Daughter Chat Day. The group regularly runs events that bring together fathers, daughters and other community members to talk about their futures and dreams while they play games, sing and dance.
During one recent Father-Daughter Chat Day, a man held his teenage daughter’s hand and announced, “I promise not to marry my daughter off, and I will support her dreams of becoming a teacher as much as I can.” He then signed a piece of paper and handed it to the village chief as a guarantee that he would keep his promise.
Then the crowd of villagers cheered and applauded as dozens of fathers followed the same ritual, publicly pledging to not marry off their daughters.
Theater and Singing for Those Having Second Thoughts
If the efforts of the village leaders and the father-daughter chats aren’t enough, the girls of Chiradzulu have a secret weapon: Their haunting singing.
Every week a few local girls aged between 11 and 16 come together after school and compose songs against child marriage. In their most popular song, they ask their communities to support them with their education instead of marrying them off.
“Community theater, music and art have all proven to be great ways for communities to start a dialogue around the issue of child marriage,” says Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides. “They can also help girls and their communities understand and express some of the harmful consequences of the practice.”
Moreen, a 16-year-old community theater actor and an early marriage activist, is sitting on the ground, looking intimidated by the older actor playing her mother-in-law. A child marriage survivor and a mother of two, Moreen recently escaped an abusive marriage that left her HIV positive and moved back in with her family. Now back in school, Moreen is using her passion for theater to get people in her village to understand why girls should wait to get married.
The show stops and one of the actors hands a microphone to a member of the audience to discuss how issues like early marriage or domestic abuse should be tackled. “So, how do you deal with a situation like this at home?” the actors ask the audience, and the crowd starts to buzz with suggestions.
“I don’t want the things that happened to me to happen to other girls,” Moreen says. “Also, acting is a lot of fun.”