International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

New Malawi Marriage Legislation Heralds Progress

The Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act (Marriage Act) of 2015 has set up 18 as the minimum age for marriage in Malawi. Currently, Malawi’s child marriage rights are among the highest in the world (one out of two girls will marry before 18).

It is important to realize that besides the passing of this legislation, human rights advocates are now demanding that Malawi’s parliament amend the country’s constitution, in order to cement the new law into custom and to prevent the inconsistencies that have plagued Malawi’s earlier laws regulating marriage and divorce. The law will be particularly useful to that effect, in that it consolidates all laws on marriage and divorce, and includes provisions for the protection of married women and granting them equality to their husbands.

The passing of the law is important not just for its content, but for its symbolic message to the international community. As Agnes Odhiambo of Human Rights Watch states, “By enacting a new marriage law, Malawi is telling the world that it is ready to protect girls from the abuse and exploitation that results from child marriages.”

Unfortunately, the language of the Marriage Act is detrimental to the rights and liberties of LGBTI people. While the preamble acknowledges the country’s obligation to meet international legal standards, the bill’s language implicitly–and sometimes explicityly–violates Malawi’s obligations to protect its citizens against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender diversity. Most prominent among the explicit legalization of discrimination is the law’s support of the prohibition on “unnatural offenses”–a prohibition that is frequently used to criminalize adults who engage in same-sex relations.

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