The practice of marrying young girls continues in Africa and other parts of the world despite efforts to end the tradition. Why haven’t these interventions been more successful? Emmily Kamwendo, a UCT doctoral researcher, believes that the idea of ‘readiness for marriage’ needs to be understood and interrogated in the context of the communities where the practice continues – which is what she is doing with one community in Malawi.
Despite ongoing interventions, child marriage remains a huge challenge in many countries in Africa and elsewhere. While working for organisations trying to end child marriage in Africa, Emmily Kamwendo, now a postgraduate researcher in the UCT Department of Sociology, often found herself frustrated by their lack of results.
“I felt like we were putting a lot of money into curbing child marriages,” she explains, “but the longer I worked in the field, the more I felt like these investments never really changed anything.”
Wanting to map out this disconnect and find a new lens through which to view child marriages, Kamwendo aims to reconstruct the African notion of a girl’s ‘readiness for marriage’. And she is doing this with a focus on her home country of Malawi.
Challenging Eurocentric interventions
“Reports show that 39% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before their 18th birthday – more than one in three,” write Graca Machel, UCT chancellor and chair of the Graca Machel Trust, and Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala, UNICEF regional director for eastern and southern Africa, in an article highlighting the plight of child brides in Africa.
“Globally, every year, 15 million girls are married before they turn 18. It is estimated that between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides.”
“Instead of viewing child marriage as a problem to be solved, she is pushing us to understand the intricate political economy of such marriages.”
As their article points out, these numbers are staggering and cause for renewed efforts to eliminate customs that disregard the rights of the African girl child. Among these efforts are calls urging countries to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18.
This is all good and well, Kamwendo says, but when you’re working in communities where birth registration data is absent and many people do not even know their own birth year, changing mindsets through the Eurocentric prism of ‘legal age’ is altogether impossible.
When asking men in these communities how they knew their wives were ready for marriage, Kamwendo points out that, “I saw she was 18,” is simply not an answer you will hear.
“I believe that if we are able to understand how these local communities conceptualise ‘readiness for marriage’, then perhaps we’ll be able to invest more relevantly in ending the problem,” she explains.
What constitutes ‘readiness for marriage’?
In the absence of birth registration data, what measures do the Malawian communities that Kamwendo’s study focuses on use to determine whether a girl is ready for marriage?
Since age isn’t a factor, these communities tend to have “traditional”, biological and social constructs of readiness for marriage that includes the successful completion of initiation ceremonies, beginning of menses, the development of breasts, the girl’s ability to perform household chores and so on.
“In the absence of birth registration data, what measures do the Malawian communities that Kamwendo’s study focuses on use to determine whether a girl is ready for marriage?”
When they reach sexual maturity, girls also become important pawns in the political economy of traditions and traditional authority figures – known as mafumu in Malawi. This complicates the matter further.
The political economy, traditional authority and girls’ sexuality
“There is an intersection of the traditional authority’s political economy and girls’ sexuality that shapes and influences their readiness for marriage,” Kamwendo explains. “Right now, in Malawi, there are so many payments going to traditional leaders in the name of maintaining tradition.”
Most of these payments are enforced as a necessary contribution to the mafumu’s ability to protect the village from both the evil spirits brought by menstruation and pregnancy, and the outside threat embodied by new husbands.
“Thus, an informal ‘industry’ has been built around girls’ sexuality and their ‘readiness for marriage’, which helps maintain the institution of traditional power.”
Kamwendo goes on to point out three examples.
First, the mafumu needs to be notified – in the form of a payment – as soon as a girl in their village starts menstruating. Second, as Malawi has a matrilineal society and husbands move to the villages where their wives are from, the mafumu also needs to receive a payment from the families of girls who get married. Finally, if a girl falls pregnant, the mafumu expects to receive a payment once again.
“These mafumus are rallying behind girls’ sexuality for their own survival in an effort to maintain their place as protectors of the people,” Kamwendo points out.
Thus, an informal ‘industry’ has been built around girls’ sexuality and their ‘readiness for marriage’, which helps maintain the institution of traditional power.
Grounding policy in community reality
Kamwendo’s priority for her PhD is to develop a framework for understanding what child marriage is in Malawian context. Now in the final stages of her PhD, Kamwendo is close to reaching her goal.
“If we can understand how communities conceptualise readiness for marriage, we can compare it to the way we frame child marriages in legal and policy frameworks.”
She collected her data over a period of six months and spent a month in the study community, familiarising herself with its people, their daily lives and their culture. She even participated in activities like weddings and irrigating crops. This helped establish rapport with the participants, thereby increasing the validity of the data. Her work is being supervised by Amrita Pande, associate professor of sociology at UCT along with colleague Dr Ruchi Chaturvedi.
“Emmily’s work is a critical challenge to existing frames for analysing child marriage in the continent and beyond,” says Pande. “Instead of viewing child marriage as a problem to be solved, she is pushing us to understand the intricate political economy of such marriages.”
She adds that amidst all the recent calls for decolonising knowledge production, Emmily’s work is a refreshing reminder that it is futile to import and impose frames from elsewhere into different contexts.
“If we can understand how communities conceptualise readiness for marriage, we can compare it to the way we frame child marriages in legal and policy frameworks,” Kamwendo says. “Then, if we bring these two – community understanding and policy frameworks – together, we will hopefully be able to gauge whether there’s a congruency between them.”
Only by pulling together these pieces in a new way, she believes, can the problem of child marriage in Malawi – and hopefully the rest of Africa – be addressed successfully.
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