Harmful Practices against Girls in Malawi

Malawian teenager© Is­abel Cor­thi­er

Chil­dren all over the world are ex­posed to var­i­ous tra­di­tion­al prac­tices as they grow up. While those prac­tices can be an im­por­tant part of one’s cul­ture and iden­ti­ty, some – from fe­male gen­i­tal cut­ting to sex­u­al ini­ti­a­tion rit­u­als and child mar­riage – can have ad­verse ef­fects, par­tic­u­lar­ly for girls. For in­stance, re­search has shown that child mar­riage, a vi­o­la­tion of hu­man rights, in­creas­es school dropouts and teenage preg­nan­cies. This not only puts girls’ lives un­der threat, but also com­pro­mis­es their fu­ture op­por­tu­ni­ties, re­in­forc­ing gen­der-based pover­ty.

The Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals of this Pro­ject
no povertygood health and well-beeinggender equalityreduced inequalitiespartnership for the goals

In Malawi, more than 40% of girls are mar­ried be­fore the le­gal age of 18 and 10% be­fore the age of 15. Nev­er­the­less, less than 5% of par­ents say that the ide­al age of mar­riage for girls is be­low 18. So why do they do it?

This re­search ar­gues that fam­i­lies mar­ry off their un­der-age daugh­ters in Malaw­ian vil­lages at least in part to demon­strate that they can be trust­ed as part of their com­mu­ni­ty. Pub­lic im­age con­cerns are in­deed a pow­er­ful dri­ver of many be­hav­iors, cre­at­ing a wedge be­tween pri­vate and pub­lic mo­tives, as in the case of child mar­riage. Low­er­ing pub­lic im­age con­cerns typ­i­cal­ly in­volves mak­ing the be­hav­ior one hopes to dis­cour­age less vis­i­ble. Mar­riages, how­ev­er, are of­ten pub­lic cer­e­monies un­der the pub­lic eye.

In­stead, we tried to in­crease the vis­i­bil­i­ty of al­ter­na­tive be­hav­iors that con­tribute to pub­lic im­age with­out hurt­ing girls in the process. We did so by mak­ing char­i­ta­ble be­hav­ior more vis­i­ble to the com­mu­ni­ty. We ran­dom­ly as­signed 412 vil­lages in rur­al Malawi to a pub­lic do­na­tion dri­ve. In some of those vil­lages, but not oth­ers, house­holds who do­nat­ed 2kg of maize to be re­dis­trib­uted to the poor­est house­holds in the vil­lage re­ceived a red rub­ber bracelet, which made it vis­i­ble to oth­ers that they were en­gaged com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. We hoped that this al­ter­na­tive sig­nal would al­low house­holds to act on their pri­vate mo­tives when it came to child mar­riage.

Af­ter 16 months, child mar­riage de­creased by 30% and teenage preg­nan­cies by 29% in vil­lages that host­ed the pub­lic do­na­tion dri­ve. School dropouts de­creased by 15%. Why did this hap­pen? In vil­lages with­out the pub­lic do­na­tion dri­ve, vil­lagers main­tained a strong as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween pub­lic im­age and sup­port for child mar­riage, while this was no longer the case in treat­ed vil­lages, where vil­lagers could pro­tect their so­cial im­age through a vis­i­ble – and harm­less – al­ter­na­tive.

The loop: Girls un­der-de­vel­op­ment due to child mar­riage, re­sult­ing in school dropouts, ear­ly preg­nan­cy-re­lat­ed risks, and gen­der-based pover­ty.

Break­ing the loop: Of­fer­ing par­ents a harm­less al­ter­na­tive to pro­tect their pub­lic im­age while act­ing on their pri­vate mo­tives by not mar­ry­ing off their un­der­age daugh­ters.

Harm­ful Prac­tices against Girls in Malawi

As many tra­di­tion­al prac­tices, child mar­riage can be char­ac­ter­ized as a so­cial norm. This pa­per doc­u­ments first-hand that one ex­pects to be per­ceived as less pro-so­cial if they were not to mar­ry their un­der-age daugh­ter.

  • Sta­tusClosed
  • Coun­tryMalawi
  • Pro­gram areaNo Pover­ty, Health Well­be­ing, Gen­der Equal­i­ty, Re­duced In­equal­i­ties, Part­ner­ships
  • Top­icsIni­ti­a­tion Rit­u­als, Child Mar­riage, So­cial Norms, So­cial Net­works
  • Part­nersUNICEF Malawi, Cen­ter for So­cial Re­search Malawi, Uni­ver­si­ty of Malawi
  • Time­line2018-2019
  • Study typeRan­dom­ized Eval­u­a­tion
  • Sam­ple SizeWe con­duct­ed a to­tal of 14,821 in­ter­views.

Re­search Team