Malawi to ban child marriage by raising minimum age to 18

Campaigners have welcomed the decision by Malawi to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18.

This is a vital breakthrough in a country where half of all girls end up as child brides and nearly one is eight is married off by the age of 15. Child marriage can deprive girls of education and opportunities and expose them to health risks such as HIV or complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

Jessie Kabwila, a member of the Malawi parliament, helped to drive through the new legislation, which was passed unanimously and will be signed into law by President Peter Mutharika in the coming days.

She said: “This law is extremely crucial because child marriage is a big, big problem in our country. The country will for the first time clearly articulate that we are saying 'No' to child marriage.”


Ms Kabwila emphasised the educational needs for the new minimum marriage age. She told the Thomson Reuters Foundation: “This law is very important because of the number of girls who drop out of school because they are going to get married and because of the high numbers of girls who are dying when they are giving birth.

“We cannot talk about development if we have child marriage. Women's empowerment is a crucial player in development and women cannot be empowered if they are not educated.”

But campaigners warned that much work still needed to be done to rid Malawi – one of the world's poorest countries – of traditional practices such as sexual initiations, in which older men have sex with girls when they reach puberty to “prepare them” for marriage.

The new laws come after a long and concerted campaign which included UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) working with the Malawi National Youth Council to launch an advocacy campaign aimed at parlamentarians. Malawian members of Girls Not Brides – a global partnership of more than 400 organisations – have also been pushing for this change for many years.

Child marriage is regarded by the United Nations as marriage under the age of 18. It is a violation of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Most countries around the world have set a minimum age for marriage – usually 18. But many countries have exceptions, such as parental consent.

A 2013 report by the World Policy Analysis Center found 93 countries which legally allow girls to marry before 18 with parental consent. Girls Not Brides says 18 should be the minimum age for marriage because it “safeguards a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready”. 

The End Child Marriage Campaign Taskforce is a coalition of international and local NGOs working to get girls who have dropped out of school through pregnancy, marriage or other reasons to go back to their education. Its chairman Mac Bain Mkandawire said recently: “A number of girls have returned to school. But there are many out there still tied to the yoke of marriage.” He said the new law would help the campaign.

Find out more about the issues surrounding child marriage.