On International Women’s Day, the majority of the more than 60 million child brides around the world will spend their time as they spend every other day of the year: out-of-school, at-risk, marginalized and poor. The theme chosen by the United Nations for International Women’s Day 2012 is “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty.” At first glance, this has little to do with child marriage. But rural poverty is at the root of the high prevalence of early marriage (UNICEF, 2006). Within the context of traditions that devalue women, families often see girls as an economic burden or as a tool for relieving their debts.
Over the last six months, staff of The Public Health Institute’s (PHI) Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy & Leadership Initiative (AGALI) have created a short film that explores the relationship between poverty, tradition, and child marriage in Malawi. Lifting Our Voices: Ending Child Marriage in Malawi addresses the issue of child marriage in Malawi and its impact on adolescent girls’ health and wellbeing.
In Malawi, nearly 47% of girls are married before the age of 18 (ICRW, 2007), often to much older men. Girls who marry young experience high rates of health complications and economic hardship relating to early childbearing and lack of educational opportunities. These married girls are at far higher risk than their unmarried peers of dropping out of school, experiencing domestic violence, and living in extreme poverty.
Last August, after coordinating a week-long AGALI advocacy workshop in central Malawi for 19 leaders and advocates, Lorena Gomez-Barris and I traveled 13 hours north with AGALI Country Representative Howard Kasiya and one of our 2011 AGALI Fellows, Esther Munthali. There, only a few miles from the border with Tanzania, Esther introduced us to a young woman who she met through the groundbreaking work of her organization, FOCUS.Like many girls her age, Catherine Kauka was the victim of bride kidnapping, a common practice in northern Malawi where men kidnap girls and force them into marriage against their will. Although families and communities often accept this practice, Catherine was able to escape this fate through the support of her father. Her unusual and inspiring story sheds light on the continuing challenge of what can be done to address child marriage. Interspersing Catherine’s personal story with commentary from AGALI-affiliated experts in Malawi, Lifting Our Voices examines the varied causes and consequences of child marriage, and discusses the policy and programming solutions that can be implemented to address this critical public health issue.
In honor of International Women’s Day this year, AGALI staff will be screening Lifting Our Voices: Ending Child Marriage in Malawi at PHI headquarters in Oakland, CA from noon-1pm on Thursday, March 8th. We hope that you will join us in learning about the exciting work being done to empower rural women and to end the practice of child marriage in Malawi and around the world.