On Initiation Rites and Child Marriage

illustrated drop cap for the letter TThere are 18.6 million people in Malawi. Many of them are subject to some sort of initiation ceremony. These ceremonies are religiously followed and form the basis of a version of  cultural survival.

Still, there is the troubling fact that a number of children drop out of school after going through such initiations.  This may be thanks to the fact that many children who have gone through an initiation also end up in early marriages – many of which are forced on now-initiated children. Indeed, a study done in 2018 by Lea Mwambene, an Associate Professor of Law, University of the Western Cape, in South Africa, shows that Malawi has the 11th highest child marriage rate in the world, with nearly one in two girls married before the age of 18. 

Though there is a legal prohibition on marriage before the age of 18 in Malawi, Mwambene also points out that between 2010 and 2013, Malawi recorded 27,612 girls in primary school and 4,053 high school girls dropped out of school because of forced marriage. 

Limbani Nsapato, Malawi Country Representative for the Edukans – an NGO that advocates for the rights to education for children – calls for more attention to what he terms a “crisis.” He also points out that the coronavirus pandemic has furthered the trouble.

“It’s a worrying situation,” Nsapato says “In Malawi, for example, due to the closures of schools, there is an increase in early pregnancies and early marriages.  As I speak to you, over 5,000 children in Phalombe district and over 7,000 of them in Mangochi district have been forced to get married. In Mzimba district in the northern region of Malawi over 400 children have since the pandemic gone into early marriages or have been pregnant.”.

Despite the mounting issues, and the legal prohibition against child marriage, there seems to be little in the way of enforcement. Fisani Ngwazi, a South African journalist, notes that “cases of child marriages in the rural areas are reported to traditional chiefs and not the police and in so doing very little is known because the local leaders look at these cases as part of their cultural traditions.” For Ngwazi, reporting such cases to the police is a critical way to impact the problem. 

There remains something deeply important about initiation rites. They remain part of an identity too often overshadowed in a post-colonial Africa. But this culture turns But the culture problematic when those who are said to be it’s custodians — local chiefs, for example — effectively endorse early marriage. When the chiefs (and law enforcement agent)s fail to do their work of protecting children against abuse, everyone’s future is in limbo.