“Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948)
|CRIMSON TAZVINZWA|AIWA! NO!|Malawi should increase efforts to end widespread child marriage, or risk worsening poverty, illiteracy, and preventable maternal deaths, warned Human Rights Watch in a 2014 report.
“I’ve never experienced happiness: Child marriage in Malawi” documents how child marriage prevents girls and women from participating in all spheres of life in Malawi, a country where 1 in 2 girls is married before age 18.
Child marriage is a harmful practice that violates girls’ rights to health, to education , to be free from violence, and to choose if, when, and whom to marry.
The report outlines concrete measures for Malawi’s President, Joyce Banda, and the government to protect girls from child marriage including:
Enact the Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Bill, which set the legal minimum age of marriage at 18;
Develop a comprehensive national action plan to prevent and address the consequences of child marriage;
Develop a national policy on adolescent reproductive health;
Train law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute cases of violence against women, including child marriage
Support non-governmental organisations working on violence against women and girls, including child marriage
Support shelters for survivors of gender-based violence
As a former president of Malawi and the founder of her own foundation, Joyce Banda is one of the world’s great advocates for the idea that empowering women and girls benefits everyone. In anticipation of this year’sGoalkeepers report, which focuses on the challenges and potential of a growing young population in Africa, Joyce reflects on the importance of female leadership. I want to share her essay with you before we launch the report next week. — Bill Gates
BY JOYCE BANDA (AIWA! NO!)//When I was eight years old, a family friend told my father that he thought I was destined for leadership. My dad never let me forget that heady observation, and as a result of his constant encouragement, I took every opportunity I had to pursue our friend’s prophecy. Today, I owe much of my success to my late father, whose belief in me was unwavering.
Unfortunately, most African girls are not as lucky as I was. While many girls possess leadership qualities, social, political, and economic barriers stymie their potential. This is especially true for girls in rural parts of Africa, where poverty, abuse, and tradition conspire to limit opportunity.
The heartbreaking story of my childhood friend, Chrissie, is illustrative. Chrissie was the star student in the village in Malawi where I grew up. But she dropped out of secondary school because her family could not afford the $6 in monthly fees. Before Chrissie was 18, she was married with a child; she has never left the village where we were born.
Chrissie’s experience is repeated millions of times over in my country, across Africa, and around the world. Today, more than 130 million girls worldwide are out of school through no fault of their own. By the time many African girls turn ten, their fate is already determined. Some are victims of harmful cultural practices, like female genital mutilation and child marriage, while others are unable to escape the poverty that grips their families and communities.
Economic bias is especially damaging to girls. When resources are limited, poor families must choose which children to send to school, and in many regions, boys are viewed as “safer” investments. Girls, meanwhile, are married off, or sent to work in the fields or as domestic helpers. These decisions about the allocation of educational opportunity severely stunt female leadership potential.
Changing endemic cultural norms about gender and identity—and developing more female leaders—begins in the classroom. School-age girls must be taught to value themselves and one another, and that it is their right to be educated, healthy, and empowered. At the Joyce Banda Foundation School in Blantyre, Malawi, educators have adopted a curriculum based on four building blocks: universal values, global understanding, service to humanity, and excellence. When women and girls are given equal access to education, health care, and jobs, their sense of self-worth improves and social stature follows.
Parts of Africa are moving in the right direction. Today, nearly a quarter of sub-Saharan Africa’s lawmakers are women, up from just 10 percent in 1997. Rwanda, meanwhile, has the highest percentage of female legislators in the world. And throughout Africa, women have been elected to leadership roles at all levels of government.
Still, much work remains. As the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will make clear in its annual Goalkeepers report later this month, governments must recommit to supporting female leaders’ development by investing in the health and education of women and girls. Delivering services to girls under ten years of age, especially in rural areas, is essential if Africa is ever to achieve lasting gender equality.
Over the course of my career in Malawi—first in civil society, then as a Member of Parliament, and finally, as president—I became convinced that the only way to change Africa’s misogynistic narrative is by helping more women reach the highest levels of power. Research from India shows that when governments increase the percentage of women in their ranks, social issues like health care, education, and food security receive higher priority. Having more women in leadership is thus good for everyone.
Leaders are born as well as made, but when they are born in Africa, they are not always recognized. To give more young women the opportunity to develop their talents and put their skills to work, today’s leaders must clear a path for the female leaders of tomorrow.