Ending Child Marriage in Malawi: A Roadmap to Sustainable Change

By Emily Teistworth, Director of Programs, Let Girls Lead

Malawi outlawed child marriage last week. Following more than five years of undaunted advocacy by Malawian girls, their allies and civil society leaders, the country's Parliament tabled and passed the "Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Bill," increasing the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18 years. This legal victory is a huge step forward for girls' and women's rights globally. The fact that it has been a painfully slow step merely serves to underscore its vital importance.

In December 2012, I published a blog on The Huffington Post called "The Beginning of the End for Child Marriage," when it looked like the Parliament of Malawi would finally vote to raise the national legal age of marriage. Now, three years later, the bill has finally passed and the hard work of implementation begins, in a country where more than half of teenage girls drop out of school and are married before the age of 18. This statistic is a tragic distillation of the many challenges facing Malawian girls as they are forced into adulthood much too soon.

Malawian girls are commonly locked in a room for seven days and taught how to please men sexually, complete with an exit exam where they must prove their skills with an older man. Girls in parts of the country customarily enter marriage when they are kidnapped, raped and forced to marry their assailant; some of them are as young as 9 years old. "Hyenas," men who are secretly employed by community elders, "cleanse" girls when they reach adolescence by having sex with them to rid them of their "sexual dust." Not coincidentally, for every one man who contracts HIV in Malawi, at least five women and girls become infected.

Structural inequities, like the widespread challenges facing girls in Malawi and around the world, require structural solutions and historical perspective. The inspiring success of the campaign to pass the 2015 Marriage Bill offers a case study of the impact of a systems-change approach to development. Since 2009, Let Girls Lead (LGL) has partnered with leaders and their organizations to identify critical challenges facing girls and young women at the local and national levels, and then launch and scale innovative solutions to address them. An external evaluation commissioned by the UN Foundation demonstrates that this model has contributed to improved health, education, livelihoods and rights for seven million girls globally.

In Malawi, LGL helped found the Adolescent Girls Advocacy Network (AGANET) in 2011, a national coalition of organizations advocating for passage of the Marriage Bill. Since 2010, LGL's leadership development, organizational strengthening and grant funding has supported the work of the Girls' Empowerment Network (GENET). With funding from LGL, GENET scaled its innovative model of girl-led advocacy, convincing 60 village chiefs to pass bylaws to end child marriage. This strategy has the potential to benefit the 4.5 million adolescent girls in Malawi by addressing the political, legal and cultural systems that contribute to the country's high rate of child marriage. By contrast, more common strategies typically only reach a few hundred girls through direct service initiatives to prevent their marrying early.

In their 2013 report on financing for women's rights organizations, "Watering the Leaves, Starving the Roots," AWID (the Association for Women's Rights in Development) notes that "the 'leaves' -- the individual women and girls -- are receiving growing attention, without recognizing or supporting the 'roots' -- the sustained collective action by feminists and women's rights activists and organizations that has been at the core of women's rights advancements throughout history." AWID's survey of more than 700 women's rights organizations demonstrates the need to not just provide services and support to individual girls and women, but also directly address the structural levers of oppression through advocacy, organizational strengthening and other systems-based solutions.

And while Malawi has taken an important step forward for girls, an injury that occurs in an instant can take years to heal. This means that socio-cultural traditions that devalue girls are bound up in post-colonial countries like Malawi with the more "modern" wounds of colonialism and neo-liberalism, which themselves are rooted more than 500 years in the past. How can we expect to transform the oppressive systems that deny girls and other marginalized groups their rights to health, education and self-determination in less than one percent of that time?

Sectarian conflict, economic inequality, even gender-based violence -- these wicked problems didn't evolve organically. They represent both the predictable outcome of oppressive systems imposed by the powerful, and the explicit divide-and-conquer rationale of past and present colonialism. In our contemporary development sector, where 5- and 10-year commitments from major donors and multi-laterals are lauded as "sustained engagement," we must ask ourselves if we have the will to create sustainable positive change. Unless we have the courage to make meaningful change, we will remain tethered to laundry lists of "impacts" achieved over six months or a year, and girls will remain on the margins of our global community.

Truly sustainable change demands long-term investment in local leadership and advocacy that ensures both passage and full implementation of girl-centric laws and policies. As the global development community focuses attention on the post-2015 agenda and the creation of "Sustainable Development Goals" (SDGs) to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we have to learn our lessons from history, and learn fast. Representatives from both AGANET and GENET will participate at the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women in New York in a few short weeks to share their strategies for sustainable systems change for girls and to advocate for girls' priorities within the SDGs.

Memory Banda is an 18-year-old young woman from GENET whose sister was married at age 11. Instead of simply mourning the loss of her sister's childhood, Memory stood up to the systems that allowed her sister to be married in the first place. Memory has spoken with village chiefs, district authorities and Parliamentarians in Malawi over the past three years as a passionate advocate for ending child marriage. When Memory takes the stage at the UN in March, her voice will resonate far beyond her family, or even her country, to more than 600 million girls around the world and to those with the power to make the world a better place for girls and women. If the global development community has the wisdom to heed Memory's message, we will finally all take the first step towards ending child marriage. The remaining journey is ours to make -- together.

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