Child marriages should end with us
IN this edition, we report that the National Assembly has urged government to take concrete steps to nip the scourge of child marriages in the bud.
According to Rothe Member of Parliament, ‘ Manthabiseng Phohleli, cases of child marriage were escalating in Lesotho, with at least 1 742 girls married before the age of 18, while at least 1 567 girls dropped out of school due to teenage pregnancy.
This is all the more disconcerting considering that a staggering 19 percent of underage girls in Lesotho are married before they turn 18.
Globally, it is estimated that between 2011 and 2020 more than 140-million girls will become child brides. These staggering figures are evidence that the challenge remains enormous. And each statistic wears the face of a child.
According to the International Centre for Research on Women, girls who marry between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times likely to die during pregnancy or child birth as women in their early 20’s. A child bride is more likely to be a victim of domestic violence and suffer health complications associated with early sexual activity and childbearing.
Child brides find it difficult to insist on condom use by husbands who are usually older and more sexually-experienced making the girls vulnerable to HIV, cervical cancer and sexually-transmitted infections. Considering that Lesotho is already grappling with a 25 percent HIV prevalence rate, children forced into marriage are among the most vulnerable groups.
There is a reason this problem lingers despite the concerted efforts governments and civil society groups have exerted to bring the practice to an end. Child marriage is indeed a complex and multifaceted problem that is motivated by economic, social and cultural factors. Ending child marriage requires work across all sectors and at all levels. It requires us to understand the complex drivers behind the practice in different contexts and adapt our interventions accordingly.
The first port of call, as our legislators have rightly noted, is addressing the conflicting legal provisions on the minimum age for marriage. Lesotho’s constitution does not expressly prohibit child marriage, and a number of customary laws effectively condone it.
The way to go is for the government to take the necessary legislative steps to harmonise marriage laws by making 18 the minimum marriage age. They should ensure that the laws require free and full consent of both spouses, with requirements for proof of age before marriage licenses are issued. The law should also impose harsh penalties on anyone who intimidates, threatens, or harms anyone who refuses to marry.
In addition to the gaps in the law, extreme poverty, poor access to education, and harmful religious beliefs and social norms fuel child marriages. That is why decisive leadership and increased political will at community, national and regional levels are paramount.
From a social standpoint, girls and boys should be seen as of equal value. It is vitally important that members of the community see the link between empowered girls and stronger societies. The government and other stakeholders need to engage with the powerful constituencies such as religious and traditional leaders in seeking change. Closely linked to community-based efforts will be addressing the structural causes of child marriage. Some of these causes are gender stereotypes and lack of protection for victims of child marriage and significant obstacles to girls seeking redress.
For example, girls have limited information about their rights, often do not have the money to travel to where they can seek protection from the authorities, and when they do, the authorities often dismiss their concerns as “a family matter”.
The nexus between governments, communities and civil society is imperative. Lasting change requires leaders, development partners and communities to build consensus that child marriage is detrimental to the child, family and nation. Leaders should move beyond rhetoric to actual social and economic investment in curtailing child marriages.
Surely, we cannot afford to allow such a retrogressive practice to spill over to the next generations. The time to act is now.