Can Child Marriages Be Stopped?
Christina Asima seems tired for a 13-year-old. I meet the shy-mannered girl in the remote farming village of Chitera, in the southern African nation of Malawi. She wears a bright pink zip-up shirt and a blue print cloth wrapped up to her chest. Snuggled in that, hugging her side, is a chubby-cheeked baby boy.
My gut assumption is that the infant must be Christina’s little brother. I know 8-month-old Praise is actually her son. Still, it’s startling when, as we speak, she shifts him around front to nurse.
"I was 12 years old when I got married to my husband," she explains softly. "My mom had run away, so I was forced to get married to help my other siblings."
Despite decades of international and local efforts to curb child marriage, it’s estimated that 1 in 3 girls still marries before age 18 in developing countries; 1 in 9 marries before age 15. And the numbers are even worse in Malawi.
In fact, pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death worldwide for girls ages 15 to 19.
Malawi law permits marriage at 15 with parental consent and merely “discourages” it at younger ages. But last summer Chitera passed its own legal age of marriage — 21 — with the ambitious goal that every girl attend college.
Parents in the village now face a steep penalty if parents marry off a daughter before age 21.
"They have to give five goats to the chief," says another local official, Roben Ndrama, "and eight chickens to the village headmen."
In a more humiliating measure, some parents have been made to scrub clean the local health center. Ndrama laughs when I ask if parents get mad about that.
"It’s worked!" he says. "This year there’ve been no early marriages."
Photograph: Christina Asima says she had no choice but to marry last year at age 12 to help care for younger siblings after her mother abandoned the family. But she says her husband was abusive, so she left him, and now must look after her 8-month-old son, Praise, alone. (Jennifer Ludden/NPR)