A Calling with Caring and Reasons: Seodi White’s “‘No Ifs or Buts’"

By Jiayi Chen

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Image Credit: UK Department for International Development, via Wikimedia Commons

(Editor's note: The article referenced in this essay is accessible here.)

Malawi, located in southeast Africa, is one of the most underdeveloped counties in the world. Fifty percent of girls in Malawi will be married by the time they turn 18. Seodi White is an anthropologist, social development lawyer, and women's rights activist from Malawi. She has composed several articles concerning Malawian women's health and rights. Having encountered the child marriage issue during a research trip in Malawi, White reflects on the necessity and urgency of abolishing child marriage, appealing to her readers through pathos, ethos, and logos.

White firmly argues against child marriage. At the beginning of the article, she reflects on her own experience 15 years ago and presents her observations of marriage status among Malawian girls. When she was doing research on inheritance laws with respect to women in a village in Malawi, as she explains, the chief treated teenage girls as "women" and let them participate in the research. Why is that, White wondered? Like White, the audience, may be confused by the chief's take-it-for-granted response: "But these are our women." However, these "women" are teenage girls who are married and have babies. In Malawi, many girls take on the role of mother and sustain a family at such young ages as 13-18. White successfully grabs the audience's attention and interest by employing this anecdote, and the fact that she actually witnessed the phenomenon in person adds to her ethos, as well.

Next, the author mentions her decade-plus journey of understanding child marriages in Malawi in an attempt to fight for an end to this practice. The fact that she herself is part of the Malawi society, that her discovery was accidental and therefore without preconceived bias, and that she is a specialist in Malawian women's empowerment and living conditions all convince the audience of her expertise. She also shows her rich knowledge, care, and passion for this issue throughout the article, again building up her credibility. Moreover, White cites statistics from the United Nations to increase the solidity of her argument: "On average, one out of two girls in Malawi will be married by their 18th birthday," with "12% of women married before they are 15 compared to only 1.2% of men." These figures effectively portray the vulnerability of Malawian girls.

As she is yearning for an end to the practice, White naturally moves to her area of expertise—law. She craves for a legal solution for this issue, as she exclaims: "My hero the law, save the girls!" Here, the author appeals to the audience's empathy. Her heartfelt advocacy provokes her audience to feel the same way as she does, looking forward to a solution, and compels the audience to care about what she has to say. Next, White explains the major obstacle that stops these girls from getting out of their situations, which is also what she mainly tries to argue against—the Constitution of Malawi. The Constitution, "the supreme law of the land from whom [sic] all legal authority is derived, defines children as those aged 16 and below." It also "allows marriages of people aged 18 and below and it does not have a cut-off point where marriage is actually prohibited." The fact that the Constitution fundamentally legalizes child marriage further complicates the abolition process. Although many people feel hopeful about the law passed by the Malawi Parliament in 2015, which prohibits marriage below 18, the author remains pessimistic about the issue. She regards it as a false hope: the Constitution still tolerates child marriage, and until that is modified, the girls' rights and health cannot be guaranteed. The author appeals to the audience's logos here by stating explicitly and logically how the Constitution of Malawi makes the new law ineffective, which has resulted in the situation not improving throughout the years.

The author's grief helps emphasize her discussion about the cost of child marriage, reinforcing the necessity of external force to end child marriage. In the final part of the article, White employs appeals to logos and pathos so as to achieve an agreement on the protections of basic human rights: the right to live, to be healthy, to receive education, and to maintain human dignity, which are all impaired by child marriage in Malawian society. By appealing to readers' reasonableness, White presents the harm child marriage can do to the rights and development of teenage Malawian girls. Even worse, the girls may never have a way out because child marriage is a guarantee of poverty, implying that the following generations will continue to fall into this cycle without opportunities for change and improvement through education. White guides the audience to think according to her logic and moves them emotionally to reach her purpose of raising awareness about this issue.

Because the article is posted on the CNN website, we can interpret that the author is trying to make the general public aware of the issue of child marriage in Malawi. But as mentioned in the article, the key to solving the child marriage issue is amending the Malawi Constitution, so it can be inferred that the author wants to draw the attention of both Malawian and international policy makers to the Constitution by exposing its unjustifiable aspects in the hope of a change. However, whoever the intended audience is, women are more likely to consist of the major actual audience, as they tend to be more understanding and sympathetic to the situations faced by the women deprived of basic human rights and suffering from family abuse.

White's utilization of ethos, pathos, and logos in her arguments tactfully brings the audience's attention to the seriousness of the child marriage problem in Malawi. Our strength to make changes in a country so far away may be limited, but by supporting advocates for change about this issue, we can still make a difference. We have the opportunity to improve thousands of young girls' lives.