Get tough on child marriages, Africa told
By Lahja Nashuuta
Windhoek- The 29th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union Assembly in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last Tuesday has commended ongoing efforts to end child marriages and urged acceleration of efforts to stop the practice on the continent.
The summit called on member states to get tough on child marriages by fully implementing the necessary legal instruments, integrate activities and programmes on the girl child in national development frameworks and allocate more money to tackle the problem.
African governments were further called to specify the minimum age of marriage, which is line with the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The call followed a presentation by the AU Ambassador on Ending Child Marriages, President Edgar Lungu of Zambia, on the progress report on the campaign to end child marriage to the assembly.
The report highlights significant efforts and challenges in member countries in ending the practice while emphasising a number of legal and policy reforms and community mobilisation and sustained political commitment.
The Campaign to End Child Marriages was launched in May 2014 and mostly led by African Heads of State and their spouses in tandem with other stakeholders, including communities affected by child marriages. It has since been launched in 20 out of the targeted 30 high prevalence countries in Africa.
President Lungu reported that the Open Session on Ending Child Marriages at the AU Peace and Security Council raised awareness about the vulnerability of children during conflict situations, including all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse including child marriages.
He said through the campaign, the AU will continue to provide technical assistance to member states and provide capacity development for various stakeholders working against child marriages.
“Ending child marriages on the continent will lay a solid foundation for the achievement of the bold aspirations of Agenda 2063, Africa’s blueprint for socio-economic and structural transformation,” he said.
Meanwhile, the AU Assembly strongly condemned the abduction and forcible marriages of young girls, particularly in conflict situations and committed to prosecute the perpetrators of these vices.
As a result, Lungu said the AU was developing a compendium of child marriage laws across the continent as a comprehensive and accessible reference for policy makers, researchers, advocates and other stakeholders.
UNICEF in 2016 noted that child marriages remained a problem on the continent, including the Southern Africa region. Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children, 17 percent of them, or 125 million live in Africa and 36 percent are in Southern Africa.
In most countries the causes of child marriages is attributed to poverty, gender inequity, tradition, insecurity, lack of education and inadequate legal frameworks.
Malawi and Mozambique are among 10 countries in the world with the highest rates of child marriages. In both countries over 50 percent of children became brides before the age of 18.
Another country with high rate of child marriages is Zambia, with about 50 percent of women aged 20-24 years married by the age of 18.
“Zambia continues to place importance on keeping girls in school as a key to ending child marriages. Even those who have fallen pregnant have been given the opportunity to go back to school through our re-entry policy,” said President Lungu, “This is a strategy which we should all adopt as it will result in the empowerment of the larger African population and ultimately lead to the sustainable development for the continent.”
Lungu said his country had made tremendous strides in the campaign to end child marriages, with the prevalence rate currently standing at 31.2 percent, depicting a 10.8 percentage drop from the 42 percent at inception of the campaign in 2014.
Other countries in the region are not immune to the scourge of child marriages. It is said that one in three girls in Zimbabwe are married before the age of 18.
Statistics by the UNDP indicate that 31 percent of Zimbabwean girls under the age of 18 were victims of forced marriages with 15 percent of them getting married at the age of 15.
The executive director of the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council (ZNFPC), Dr Munyaradzi Murwira, disclosed during a sensitisation workshop for the media in Kadoma that child marriages were prevalent in rural areas due to poverty and cultural beliefs that promoted the practice.
ZNFPC has gathered that 27 percent of young women being married at the age of 15 to 19 years are in rural Zimbabwe compared to 16 percent in urban centres.
The council in its campaign to end child marriages has involved traditional chiefs who are the custodians of culture in its campaigns against child marriages, Murwira said.
“We have now engaged the chiefs so that we can make them aware of the dangers associated with such practices including the rise in HIV infections as well as health problems caused by giving birth at the young age,” he said.
Though Namibia has a conducive legal and policy environment for the protection of children and criminalisation of child marriages, the practice is still a common occurrence.
Statistic on child marriages in Namibia are still sketchy, though UNICEF claims that annually, 5 400 young girls fall victim to child marriages after being married off in traditional ceremonies.
Arranged marriages and forced marriages for young women are also common practice in some communities including Himbas and San. It is reported that young women in these communities do not have a choice; parents and other clan members decide to whom they will be given into marriage.
Gender Equality and Child Welfare Minister Dorean Sioka has attribute child marriages in Namibia to societal norms, religious beliefs or strained economic situations.
To address the causes and consequences of child marriages and teenage pregnancies, Sioka said the government had adopted economic empowerment programmes that included financial grants to poor families, inclusive education and sexual and reproductive services for vulnerable girls.
The government has also introduced a school policy on learner pregnancy to readmit young mothers back to school.