What Links Hyenas, Shaved Heads and Child Marriage in Malawi?

In parts of Malawi, when a girl reaches puberty she may receive a night-time visit from a "hyena" - the name given to an older man who has sex with girls to "clean out the dust" of childhood and prepare them for marriage.

The ritual is one of several traditional practices that campaigners against child marriage are trying to eradicate in Malawi, where half the girls wed before their 18th birthday and one in 10 is married by 15.

Brussels Mughogho, country director of international development charity EveryChild, urged Malawi's new president, Peter Mutharika, to speed up a proposed law which would ban marriage before 18, in line with international treaties.

"We need effective action to tackle child marriage. We need leadership from him," Mughogho told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Early marriage deprives girls of education and opportunities, trapping them and their children in poverty. It also increases the risk of serious injury or death if girls have babies before their bodies are ready.

Malawi has the world's 10th highest rate of child marriage and one of the worst maternal mortality rates, with teenage pregnancies estimated to account for 20-30 percent of all maternal deaths.

Mughogho said it was vital to work with traditional leaders to end harmful practices including early sexual initiation which fuels child marriage. In some cases girls are also left with HIV-AIDS. In others they are burdened with unwanted pregnancies, forcing them to quit school.

"Traditional leaders in Malawi are the custodians of culture," Mughogho said. "If you want to change a cultural practice you have to talk to the traditional leaders and convince them so that they are agents of change."

Some members of the Tumbuka and Sena ethnic groups pull a girl out of school for a week when she has her first period and shave part of her head - a sign she is ready to marry, Mughogho said. In some areas of Malawi it is also customary for a family to give a visiting community leader one of their daughters for the night.

Mughogho said his team was working with tribal leaders to introduce by-laws banning such traditions. But he said laws alone could not end child marriage unless Malawi also tackled basic problems such as poverty and hunger.

 Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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