Child mar­riages should end with us

Lesotho Times - - Leader -

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.

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