By Emma Batha
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Malawi has passed a law banning child marriage, raising the minimum age to 18 in a country where half of girls end up as child brides.
Women rights campaigners hailed the move as "a great day for Malawian girls" and said the law would help boost development in one of the world's poorest countries.
But they warned Malawi would not end child marriage without concerted efforts to tackle poverty and end harmful traditional practices like early sexual initiations.
"This law is extremely crucial because child marriage is a big, big problem in our country," said parliamentarian Jessie Kabwila who helped push for the new legislation.
"The country will for the first time clearly articulate that we are saying 'No' to child marriage."
Malawi has one of the world's highest rates of child marriage. Half of girls wed before their 18th birthday and nearly one in eight is married by 15.
Early marriage not only deprives girls of education and opportunities, but also increases the risk of death or serious childbirth injuries if they have babies before their bodies are ready. Child brides are also at greater risk of domestic and sexual violence.
"This law is very important because of the number of girls who drop out of school because they are going to get married, and because of the high numbers of girls who are dying when they are giving birth," Kabwila told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
"We cannot talk about development if we have child marriage. Women's empowerment is a crucial player in development and women cannot be empowered if they are not educated."
EARLY SEXUAL INITIATIONS
She said parliament had voted unanimously last Thursday for the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill which the president is due to sign into law within three weeks.
Child marriage is deeply entrenched in Malawi's society partly because of a belief that a girl should marry as early as possible to maximize her fertility.
Girls are currently allowed to marry at 16, or 15 with parental consent. But many marry much younger.
Brussels Mughogho, Malawi country director of development charity EveryChild, said poverty pushed some families to marry off young daughters in exchange for a dowry payment or so that they had one less mouth to feed.
Mughogho said it was also vital to work with traditional leaders to end early sexual initiations which fuel child marriage.
In parts of Malawi, when a girl reaches puberty she may receive a night-time visit from an older man - known as "a hyena" - who has sex with girls to prepare them for marriage.
"There are so many driving factors behind child marriage," Mughogho said. "This is a very important step that we've taken, but child marriage will never end with legal instruments alone."
(Reporting by Emma Batha; Editing by Maria Caspani)