Aerial view of parched farmland on the edge of the town of Yohane in Malawi.

For a country where child marriage has been illegal since 2015, Malawi has a lot of child brides.

Nearly half the country’s girls are married by the age of 18 and nearly one in 10 by age 15, leaving Malawi ranked by Unicef as the 11th worst country in the world for child marriage.

It needed Malawi’s president Peter Mutharika to sign a constitutional amendment in April 2017 to bring the constitution and the law in line with each other.

But though it may now be illegal, but few people expect the new law to bring an end to child marriage in Malawi any time soon.

While formal marriages in cities are now less likely to go ahead for fear of prosecution, out in the rural areas where 85 per cent of the  population live, it is a different story.

There, marriage is generally an informal affair. An agreement is reached between the families – sometimes just between the couple themselves – and they are considered to be married.

Anyone hoping for rapid change need only consider that the legal age of marriage was changed to 18 in 2015 under the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act. Since then, there have been no reports of any prosecutions.

Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, with a population of 17 million projected by the International Monetary Fund to hit  45 million by 2050 at the present growth rate of 2.8 per cent. It is a rate that the IMF says is unsustainable.

Bordered by Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west and Mozambique to the east and south, the landlocked state ranks as the 16th least developed country in the world according to the 2015 UNDP Human Development Report.

Its citizens struggle with chronic malnutrition, declining soil fertility and pandemic diseases including malaria and cholera.

The majority of the population living in rural areas survive on small-scale subsistence farming, harvesting mostly maize, cotton, rice, sorghum and tobacco.

For a majority of Malawians, every day is a struggle to put food on the table;  the IMF’s Economic Development Document states that 70% live below the income poverty line, and 25% lived in extreme poverty, defined as the inability to satisfy food needs.  And all their efforts can all of a sudden turn to dust, in the face of the various natural hazards that frequently wreak havoc across the country, now occurring every year. The IMF warns: “Considering that a significant number of the non-poor in rural areas are highly vulnerable to weather shocks, the poverty rate is – if anything – expected to increase due to the impact of recent floods and drought.”

Malawi’s reliance on climate-sensitive rain-fed agriculture makes it one of the most vulnerable countries of sub-Saharan Africa to the threat of climate change.

Not only do extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts, regularly leave thousands of people homeless and destroy precious crops, but they also have a serious land long ong-lasting impact on food, water security and the sustainable livelihoods of rural communities, trapping millions in a cycle of vulnerability and hunger.

Around the world, according to a 2015 report by the Norwegian Refugee council, “an average of 22.5 million people have been displaced each year by climate or weather-related disasters in the last seven years – equivalent to 62,000 people every day. Climate change, in tandem with people’s increasing exposure and vulnerability, is expected to magnify this trend, as extreme weather events become more frequent and intense in the coming decades”.

In 2012 and 2013, two major floods struck the Nsanje and Mangochi districts of Malawi, affecting many people and washing away large swathes of agricultural fields.

Two years later, devastating floods again swamped large ares of the country,  sweeping away 356,643 village huts like matchsticks, killing livestock, destroying key infrastructures and more than 64,000 hectares of agricultural fiels.

According to the national government’s Malawi 2015 Floods Post Disaster Needs Assessment Report“the January 2015 rainfall was the highest on record for Malawi and constitutes a 1 in 500 year event, and caused significant flooding, exacerbating an already precarious situation for rural households in this region”

More than 1.1 million people were affected, 230,000 sought refuge in displacement camps, 176 were killed and 172 were reported missing.

As a result, the President declared a state of disaster in 15 of the 28 districts, including many of the poorest regions of the country. The districts of Nsanje, Chikhwawa, Phalombe and Zomba, which were worst hit by the torrential rains, have a poverty incidence of 81.2%, 81.6%, 64.5% and 56.6% respectively, significantly higher than the national average of 50.7%.

The government report estimated that the 2015 flooding cost the country an average loss of 0.7% of annual GDP.

If it is not flooding, then it is drought. the flooding of 2015 was followed by a devastating drought which left 6.5 million people (39% of the population) food insecure during the 2016/17 agricultural season. More than half of them were children.

The official report on the drought produced in association with the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) noted that “the impact, frequency and spread of drought in Malawi have intensified in the past four decades and are likely to worsen with climate change, compounded by other factors, such as population growth and environmental degradation”.

According to the report, in the last 36 years the country has experienced eight major dry spells. The drought was blamed on a combination of the El Nino weather cycle and climate change.

In April 2016, President Mutharika declared a state of national disaster, warning that maize produciton would drop by 12 per cent compared with the previous year.

The report on the drought warned that “these populations will not be able to meet their food requirements in the 2016/17 consumption season primarily due to food unavailability, increase in prices and diminishing purchasing power, and all of this further compounded by other vulnerability factors, such as general poverty levels”. 

It said droughts in Malawi cause, on average, a one percent loss of GDP annually, although the 2016 event cost the economy an estimated £223 million – equivalent to 5.6% of GDP.

In addition, an average drought increases poverty by 1.3%, while a one in 25 year drought can lead to a 17% increase, pushing more than 2.1 million more people below the poverty line. And as food gets scarce after natural disasters, it also becomes more expensive, perpetuating the spiral of poverty and malnutrition.

Illustration from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction report on Recovery Vulnerability, Risk Reduction and Adaptation to Climate Change, Malawi.

Malawi has a sub-tropical climate and in the past the rainy season has arrived in October and lasted through until March. But in recent years the rains have become more erratic, delaying the start of the agricultural season by many weeks.

“We have noted that areas where rains used to come in October, now appear only by the end of November or early December. The number of rainy days are therefore decreasing, as erratic rainfalls increase”, said Charles Vanya, chief meteorologist in charge of weather prediction for Malawi’s Department of Climate Change and Meteorological services.

The GFDRR estimated that from January to March 2016, the most critical months for agricultural production, the districts most affected by drought received 36.5% less than average rainfall.

“Just a shift in the season can have serious consequences for someone who doesn’t know that the climate is changing. When it starts to rain, they immediately start planting. But then, three weeks later, they realise that everything they planted is dry”, said Vanya’s colleague Amos Mtonya, the meteorologist in charge of early warning systems, resilience and adaptation.

During the course of the Brides Of The Sun investigation, the unpredictability of the weather was one of the most common reasons cited for a descrease in production.

“Rains come later in the year, and even when they come, they are usually very extreme during the first weeks. Then, a dry spell follows. The plants are therefore unable to survive and that’s what is preventing the households to harvest enough”, according to Rute, 16, from the Nsanje district.

According to Vanya, nights are becoming warmer as days are becoming hotter. The GFDRR’s 2011 Vulnerability, Risk Reduction and Adaptation to Climate Change report recorded that mean annual temperature in the country increased by an average rate of 0.21°C per decade over the previous thirty years and was projected to increase by 1.1 to 3.0°C by the 2060s.

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information Global Climate Report May 2017.

“Because of this increase in temperature, the amount of rains is not sufficient anymore for the crop to survive. Even if it rains, people will start planting but that crop will not survive and farmers will need to replant grains several times”, said Vanya.

As far back as 2006, the international charity ActionAid was warning that “the situation in Malawi illustrates the drastic increases in hunger and food insecurity being caused by global warming worldwide”.

That global picture is lost on many people in Malawi, who look instead for local reasons for the changing weather.

“People are aware that climate is changing and they link it to the rainfall. The number one response is that the climate is changing because of the cutting down of trees. Wherever you go you will have this answer,” said Gibson Mphepo, head of programmes with environmental think tank Lead Southern & Eastern Africa.

But if there is disagreement about the cases of the changing weather, there is greater unanimity on the solution. Rates of child marriage in Malawi remain among the highest in the world, with 46 per cent of girls married by the age of 18 and nine per cent married by 15.

Sometimes it is the family who decide that a girl must go to make ends meet; sometimes it is the girl herself who opts for marriage rather than struggle on.

“Girls get married earlier as a coping strategy, to say ‘ok, somebody will take care of me’. There is a link between climate change and early marriage, which is a coping strategy,” said Mphepo.

“More than 90% of income is coming from agriculture. If this sector is affected, income is affected. For a girl to go to school, you need money, and if the crop is affected, the household doesn’t have adequate money to send the child to school.

“There are cases where girls get married earlier as a way of taking off excess members of the family. If there are three girls in the family, they believe that if these girls get married earlier, that means the mouths, the number of people to be fed in that house will decrease.”

The government’s own report on the 2015 floods listed child marriage as one of the side effects, a view shared by the anti-child marriage campaign group Girls Not Brides.

“Where floods, droughts, and resulting crop destruction devastate food security and economic production, families may see marrying their daughters as a method to secure a safer or more food secure household for them”, it reported in June 2017.

“It’s all about how climate change is linked to poverty, about all the pressure it puts on the society, on the people,” said Amos Mtonya. “So to some, giving away their girl child can be a relief. It can also help the husband’s family, since it gets someone who can assist with the household chores.

“Soon, the girl loses interest in school. It’s easy for one to leave everything and think about marriage. Of course tradition plays its role, but climate change will encourage people to get married early.”

A 2014 Human Rights Watch report “Child Marriage in Malawi” found that that “between 2010 and 2013, 27,612 girls in primary and 4,053 girls in secondary schools dropped out due to marriage. During the same period, another 14,051 primary school girls and 5,597 secondary school girls dropped out because they were pregnant”.

As the natural disasters mount up, so too do the number of child marriages, according to Mac Bain Mkandawire, executive director of Youth Net and Counselling, which campaigns for the rights of women and children from its base in Zomba, Malawi.

“I want to highlight that over the years, in the areas that are devastated  by floods and drought, a lot of children are being married off because their families are very numerous,” he said.  “Sometimes, the children are the ones who are choosing to get married so that they can get a better living, even though that is not always the outcome.

“But the thinking behind it is: ‘we are hungry here. If you get married the man may help you get some food’. For instance, the district of Mangoche has been particularly affected by floods and there has been an insurgence of girls getting married in that area. But those marriages don’t usually last, since they were not very stable to begin with.”

He estimated that as many as 1.5 million girls are at risk across the country.

“We are not talking about half a dozen girls who are pushed into marriage because of climate change. We are talking of probably over 50 or 60 girls in a each village.

“In Malawi, child marriage has been an issue for a long period of time, with one in two girls getting married before they reach their 18th birthday. But that figure does not take into account the climate change impact. When people are designing studies, the issue of climate change isn’t linked to child marriages.

“We do not have detailed figures, but I would say 30% to 40% of child marriages in Malawi are due to the floods and droughts caused by climate change. Given that there are about 4 or 5 millions girls at risk of getting married in Malawi, around 1.5 million girls are at risk of getting married because of climate change related events. That is a very huge number.”

A 2015 African Union report referenced in Malawi’s The Nation newspaper suggested that those girls who married early were likely to bring up daughters who did the same, repeating the cycle of poverty.

It reported that 65 per cent of women with no formal education were child brides, compared with five per cent of women who went to secondary school or into higher education.

“Dropping out of school means girls often lack even basic literary and numeracy skills. One study found that each year of marriage before adulthood reduces a girl’s literacy by 5.6 percentage points,” it said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation graphic based on 2011 Unicef data

But early marriage also brings with it serious risks to the girls’ health. The 2014 Human Rights Watch report also found that “maternal mortality represents about 16 percent of all deaths of women aged 15-49”.

“When girls get married, they are expected to have sex and to have babies. Chances are very high that they will have children who will continue living in this situation of poverty and be married off again because of the same challenges. Also, those girls are prone to face various health issues,” said Mkandawire.

“In the area of Mangochi, there are a lot of cases of fistula, which comes as a result of blockage during labor, creating holes between the mother’s rectum and vagina.

“A lot of young girls also have to give birth through a caesarean section. Let me also highlight that we currently have an increase in teenage pregnancy from 26% to 29%, between 2010 and 2014. This is a result of child marriages.

“The vulnerability that climate change causes will lead to more child brides and we need to focus on them and provide support and information so that people are more aware of how to deal and respond to the issue of child marriages that result from the impact of climate change.”



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