Region tackles child marriages


The Southern African Development Community is actively engaged in efforts to curb child marriages with member states coming up with laws to curtail the practice.  

SADC member states are also campaigning for communities to stop certain cultural practices that tend to promote child marriages.

Parliamentarians and other stakeholders from the region recently participated at a recent dialogue in South Africa organized by the SADC Parliamentary Forum (SADC PF) to tackle child marriages.

Allowing people to marry under the age of 18 is against several United Nations conventions and the practice is outlawed in most countries, a Zimbabwean parliamentarian has said.

Speaking at the dialogue, Tambudzani Mohadi said although other countries turn a blind eye on child marriage, especially in poorer communities, Zimbabwe was with those that oppose the practice.

“Child marriage is now widely recognized as a violation of children’s rights. It is also a direct form of discrimination against the girl child, who, as a result of the practice, is often deprived of her basic rights to health, education, development, and equality,” the MP said.

She said despite the well-documented negative effects of child marriage, in some instances tradition, religion, and poverty continued to fuel the practice.

According to Mohadi, child marriage was common in Zimbabwe, in which 21% of children (mostly girls) were reported to have been married before the age of 18.

“Should not tradition evolve and do away with aspects that are harmful to children and the girl child in particular?”

She said in Zimbabwe child marriages were prevalent among the Johanne Marange Apostolic sect church with approximately 1.2 million members in the country. 

She said there was need to reevaluate laws that govern marriages in Zimbabwe and determine the level of enforcement.

Mohadi said the continued recognition of customary law alongside general law was problematic in her country. Her view was that the State had the responsibility of changing retrogressive customary practices that were not in consonance with human rights standards.

She said the new Zimbabwe Constitution sets out in Section 78 the minimum marriageable age for everyone at 18. 

“However the different pieces of legislation set the minimum marriageable age for girls at sixteen and eighteen for boys. This law is clearly discriminatory; why should it be permissible for a girl to be married at 16 when she is the one who is mostly at risk of the consequences of early marriage?”

 She argued that setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 for boys exposes girls to manipulation.

She explained that Zimbabwe had two legal systems because the former British colonialists made general law the official law of the land but continued to recognize customary law in matters relating to the family, such as marriage and the administration of property.

“Whilst it appears that the legal framework to protect the girl child from child marriages in Zimbabwe exists, a problem lies in the Customary Marriages Act which does not provide a minimum marriageable age and has therefore been abused.”

She called for urgent steps to align all laws with the provisions of the new constitution.

Mohadi said culture remained one of the obstacles to the enjoyment of children’s rights in Africa as communities did not always observe the relevant human rights instruments that protect children from harmful cultural practices.

She said in spite of arguments that paying lobola commodifies women, many men were still being required to pay lobola in Zimbabwe.

Mohadi said poverty was one of the major reasons for early marriage because poor families sometimes regard a young girl to be an economic burden to the family.

She said stopping child marriage requires all hands on the deck.

“Traditional, political and religious leaders need to take a bold stance against child marriage and counter existing legal, cultural and religious justifications for this destructive vice.”

 “The country’s Marriage Act must be enforced, and the customary law which allows for marriage at age 16 must be adjusted to a minimum marriageable age of 18 years, in line with the Marriage Act.  Above all, all these laws must be aligned to the dictates of the new constitution.”

She called for the promotion of girls’ rights and repel the practice of child marriage.

“They need to support girls to complete their schooling at secondary and tertiary level, and to take up gainful employment when they make the decision to become economically active. 

Additionally, girls and young women need comprehensive sexuality education, and access to family planning services to secure a healthy and well-planned future for them.”

She said chiefs had agreed to help protect the rights of the girl child by preventing child marriage.

The Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in Malawi is vigorously advocating for a Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill and another bill related to child trafficking as the country ups the ante on child marriage.

Jessie Kabwila who chairs the Women’s Caucus in Malawi and is a member of the Human and Social Development and Special Programmes at the SADC Parliamentary Forum (SADC PF), announced this during the meeting.

The bills have already been circulated in preparation for debate.

Kabwila said the Malawi Parliamentary Women’s Caucus had begun holding lobbying sessions to give fellow lawmakers a foretaste of the bills.

Under scrutiny at the lobbying sessions were the constitution of Malawi, the country’s Penal Code and the wording of the proposed Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill.

 Kabwila said many hurdles lay in the way to the passing of the two bills.

“The main hurdles are to do with marriage as an institution which is fraught with control of women.” She said a significant number of men in Malawi often go on what she termed “marriage shopping.”

“They can get married to one woman and when they get bored (in the marriage) they marry another woman in a different way.  This has made many children and women vulnerable.”

The proposed Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill seeks to harmonise marriage so that people can be held accountable to who they marry and possibly sire.

“You can’t stay with a woman for 10 years and expect her to go empty-handed if the union sours.  The way we define marriage is important.”

She does not anticipate men to take the bill lying down.

“Some men wouldn’t be amused if they are going to be held accountable to four women and pay maintenance,” she quipped to chuckles from the audience.

Kabwila said there was a mismatch between what the Constitution of Malawi stipulates and what the proposed bill seeks to achieve, which necessitates a constitutional amendment.

On an optimistic note, Kabwila said she drew strength from strong political will to stop child marriage in Malawi, which has seen MPs holding hands across political divides to confront the phenomenon.

Nevertheless, sticking points remained. The Commission that has drafted the proposed Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill (2014) recommends the age of 18 for anyone to enter marriage. 

However, the Malawi Constitution allows for marriage for those aged 15 to 18 if parents or guardians consent.  

The same constitution defines a child as anyone below the age of 16.  Additionally, the Malawi Constitution states that the State shall “actively discourage marriage between persons where either of them is under the age of fifteen years.” This has infuriated activists who argue that the provision is not forceful.

Kabwila contends that allowing people aged 15 and 18 to marry, even with parental consent, is “retrogressive.”

February 2015
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