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In June 2015, Senior Chief Inkosi Kachindamoto annulled 330 youth marriages in Dedza district, in the Central Region of Malawi.

The move affected 175 girl wives and 155 boy fathers and is part of an effort to encourage former child spouses to return to school and continue a healthy childhood.

According to the UN Population Fund, Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. In 2012 one in every two girls in Malawi was married before the age of 18. Youthful marriages and pregnancy cause high dropout rates, and only 45 per cent of girls stay in school past standard eight (8th grade). The many young girls who have left school have few opportunities to earn a living, which leaves them exposed to gender-based violence.

Chief Kachindamoto’s decision was initially met with resistance, but she continued door-to-door campaigning in the community with mothers’ groups, members of the Village Development Committee, faith-based leaders and NGOs. “I talk to the parents. I tell them: if you educate your girls you will have everything in the future,” said Chief Kachindamoto.

I talk to the parents. I tell them: if you educate your girls you will have everything in the future.

Through consistent advocacy efforts, UN Women and its partners have played an integral part in raising awareness on this issue and lobbying for legislative change. More than 12 years in the making, Malawi’s Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, was passed by Parliament in February 2015 and enacted two months later. It raises the minimum age of marriage without parental consent to 18.

The new Act and annulments have opened a new realm of possibilities for young women like 21-year-old Stella Kalilombe, who was married at 16 and endured an abusive relationship for many years. “I suffered, but I survived,” she says. “Which is why I decided to go back to school, to shape that future, a future of hope, peace and happiness for my family and me.”

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