(AA) – Malawian President Peter Mutharika has signed into law a much-awaited bill that will make 18 the minimum age for marriage.
“I am excited and happy that the president has assented to the bill,” Patricia Kaliati, minister for gender, children, disability and social welfare, told The Anadolu Agency by phone on Wednesday.
“I welcome this development; my ministry worked hard to have it [the bill] passed in parliament,” said a jovial-sounding Kaliati.
“It is a statement that we are committed to ending child marriages in Malawi,” she asserted.
The Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill was ratified by parliament on Feb 12.
The new legislation raises the minimum age for marriage from 14 to 18, effectively banning child marriages.
“We will continue the fight to end early marriages so our girls can go to school,” Kaliati told AA.
“The new law will also help the courts hand out stiff penalties to offenders,” she added.
Malawi reportedly ranks eighth in the world in terms of child marriages, with some girls as young as nine being married off because their parents are too poor to care for them or pay for their education.
Most young brides end up being abused; others die while giving birth.
Some suffer from birth-related complications that lead to a condition known as fistula.
A majority of these girls do not finish their education and remain trapped in poverty.
In 2001, Malawi instituted a special legal commission to review legislation related to marriage and divorce.
It took the commission years to draft the bill, which was later rejected by the cabinet because it also included a ban on polygamy.
Kaliati said that, despite calls by some human rights groups for the bill to be sent back to parliament for further scrutiny, a number of NGOs support the government’s efforts to end child marriage.
“Those who didn’t want the president to sign the bill did so to serve their own interests,” she insisted.
“But there are many other groups who helped us, with research and campaigns, for the bill to be passed in parliament,” Kaliati added.
Some pro-gay activists recently petitioned Mutharika not to approve the bill, saying it still contained unresolved issues, especially those pertaining to gay rights.
The new law, for example, does not recognize same-sex marriages.
Mutharika said last week that he was still consulting on the bill. News that he signed it will come as a surprise to those who had wanted it sent back to parliament for further debate.
But Kaliati said that what matters now is that the country has a legal framework for ending child marriage.
“Our focus now is to make sure girls remain in school,” she told AA.
“No man or parent should force children to drop out of school because of marriage,” she said.