Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence

Executive Director’s blog series: Ending child marriage

A 16-part blog series by UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on the occasion of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

Date: Thursday, November 30, 2017

Not only is marrying young a form of violence in itself, where girls who are not physically or emotionally ready to leave home, must become sexually active and start their own family; it also makes them more vulnerable to being beaten or threatened by their husbands than girls who marry later. In fact, the greater the age difference between girls and their husbands, the greater the inequality, and the more likely they are to experience intimate partner violence. (UNICEF)

Child marriage is not a rare and unusual practice: it’s common, although now beginning to decrease on average globally. However, in times of crises, rates of child marriage can increase, such as in refugee camps, where marriage can seem to offer protection, stability and security.

Currently, almost 750 million girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday. These girls experience a range of negative consequences, from high rates of death in childbirth to the end of their education, with all that it implies for their future ability to break free from the poverty, patriarchy and inequality that underlie becoming a child bride.

But change is on the way. Now, across Africa, where 125 million girls and women alive today were married before their 18th birthday, the African Union has made it a priority to end this practice, bringing the weight of 54 countries across the continent to a common position that will encourage the implementation of national plans to end child marriage. When leaders commit to annulling and preventing the practice, societal change can follow quickly.

Take Malawi: One in two Malawian girls is married before her 18th birthday — one of the highest rates of child marriage worldwide. But when Malawi’s President, Arthur Peter Mutharika, became a HeForShe IMPACT Champion, he committed to take groundbreaking steps to eliminate child marriage and made it a national priority.

"As of 2017, I have managed to nullify more than 3,500 marriages, leading to the admission of these children to school." - H.E. Peter Arthur Mutharika, President of Malawi

Malawi has committed to fully implementing its 2015 Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act within the next five years, and the government has also established a Task Force on Ending Child Marriage. The enactment and follow through of legislation is a vital part of the solution, helping to draw clear enforceable boundaries of the age at which marriage is legal.

Crucially, there is action to end child marriage both from Malawi’s national government, and from local and community levels. In the Dedza district, in central Malawi, a female chief supported by UN Women has annulled 330 customary marriages — 175 of which were girl wives, and 155 boy husbands.

Emma Watson and Senior Chief Inkosi Kachindamot are welcomed by the girls at Mtakataka Secondary School in the District of Dedza where she hears from girls whose  child marriages have been anulled and they returned to school. Photo: UN Women/Karin Schermbrucker
UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, and Senior Chief Inkosi Kachindamoto with girls at Mtakataka Secondary School in the District of Dedza where they hear from girls whose child marriages have been annulled and they returned to school. Photo: UN Women/Karin Schermbrucker

Senior Chief Inkosi Kachindamoto hopes that annulling these marriages will allow these children to finish their education. She said: “I talk to the parents. I tell them: if you educate your girls you will have everything in the future.”

When the whole country commits to tackling deep-rooted traditions like child marriage head-on, millions of girls stand to benefit. This is a task for men especially, who can accelerate progress by saying simply ‘I will not marry a child’. We need to demand these commitments (watch my call to action at the 2017 Global Citizen Festival).