[JURIST] Malawi enacted the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act of 2015 (Marriage Act) on Wednesday, a move that Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] welcomed [press release] as “an important step toward preventing child marriage.” The act was passed by Parliament in February and approved [BBC report] by President Peter Mutharika this week, setting a minimum marrying age of 18 for both boys and girls. It also requires marriages to be registered with the government and gives equal status to husbands and wives, which HRW has commended as a strong protection for women. A widow can now inherit her husband’s property if he dies. Additionally, the Marriage Act places financial responsibility on the families of minor boys for children they have while underage. However, HRW is urging the Malawi government to amend its constitution to give full effect to the Marriage Act and to establish provisions requiring full consent of all parties entering marriage. HRW is also advocating for the elimination of provisions in the Marriage Act which discriminate toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people. The act defines marriage as that between people of opposite sexes, defines sex as the sex assigned at birth, and prohibits “unnatural offenses,” a provision which could be used to criminalize homosexuality.
Malawi currently has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world, with approximately half of Malawian women getting married before they reach 18 years of age. Factors that contribute to this high statistic include poverty, lack of education or employment opportunities, and a culture of female subordination. The current constitution permits marriage for children aged 15 to 18 with their parents’ consent. In March, HRW called on Malawi to end child and forced marriage in a report [JURIST report] detailing how child marriage exposes girls to domestic and sexual violence. In recent years child marriage has been criticized in other areas of the world as well. In September Bangladeshi officials approved [JURIST report] the Child Marriage Prevention Act of 2014, requiring a two-year jail term for any person who marries a girl under the age of 18. However, in October, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was considering [JURIST report] changing the country’s law once again to allow marriage at 16, a move HRW urged against. In December 2011 HRW also called on the government of Yemen to increase [JURIST report]the minimum age for girls to enter into marriage.