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Malawi: New Law Increases Minimum Marriage Age to 16

(Aug. 31, 2009) It was reported on August 11, 2009, that the Malawi Parliament had passed into law a constitutional amendment bill upping the minimum marriageable age (with parental consent) from 15 to 16. (Chidyamakanda Law' Oppression for Malawi Girls – Activists, NYASA TIMES ONLINE, Aug. 11, 2009,available at

The Malawi government is under criticism by local rights groups for not raising the minimum marriageable age to 18. Youth Net and Counseling (YONECO), a local non-governmental organization active in social justice and reproductive health issues affecting women, youth, and children, issued a statement in which it called the new law oppressive. (Id.) The statement summarized the concerns surrounding marriage of young girls as follows:

Premature pregnancy carries significant health risks and pregnancy related deaths are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 years. Early marriage also jeopardizes a girl's right to education. In addition, married girls have few social connections, restricted control over resources and little power in their new households and domestic violence is always common in such marriages. (Id.)

YONECO pointed out that the new law contradicts the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which considers anyone under the age of 18 a child and to which Malawi is a signatory. (Id.)

The Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM) stated that girls who marry at the age of 16 are exposed to pregnancy-related complications, such as obstructed labor and obstetric fistula, which are said to be common in Malawi. (Clair Ngozo, Sweet 16 Marriages Cause Controversy, IPS, Aug. 21, 2009, available at FPAM also made a legal argument that marriage of a 16-year-old girl is a form of child abuse, because children at that age are not equipped to give valid consent. (Id.)

Despite the widespread opposition to the new law, the National Health Minister, Moses Chirambo, sees it as a positive development. Citing early results of a study that his Ministry is conducting showing the high dropout rate of primary school girls (who are generally under the age of 16) due to pregnancy and marriage, Chirambo argues that the new law, together with intensive sex education, would help keep young girls in school. (Id.)

According to Malawi law, the President has 21 days to give his assent to the law before it can enter into force. If the President decides to withhold his assent, he will return the bill to the Speaker of the National Assembly with the reasons for withholding his assent. If the bill is passed by a majority vote of the National Assembly for a second time, 21 days from the day the President notified the Speaker of his decision to withhold his assent and within thee months from that date, the President is required by law to give his assent. (Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, §73, Malawi SDNP [Sustainable Development Networking Programme]website, (last visited Aug. 25, 2009).)