Moses Magadza

WINDHOEK – Data generated by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows that there has been a marked decrease in the prevalence of child marriage in East and Southern Africa, but a spike of such cases in West and Central Africa, according to an official.

Ms Yvette Kathurima Muhia, the Head of Engagement at Girls Not Brides – an organisation that brings together more than 1000 Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) striving to end child marriage globally – recently told SADC PF Members of Parliament that progress against the phenomenon had not been uniform across all regions.

The lawmakers belong to the SADC PF Standing Committee on Gender Equality, Women Advancement and Youth Development (GEWAYD). They met virtually.

Muhia explained that prevalence of child marriage in East and Southern Africa had recently gone down from about 35 percent in 2018 to about 31 per cent. However, in West and Central Africa, cases of child marriage are reported to be on an upward spiral.

Within SADC, Muhia said there was high prevalence in Mozambique where half of all girls were getting married before the age of 18. She attributed the situation in Mozambique to armed conflict and natural disasters that have affected the country as well as to harmful social norms.

Other countries with a high prevalence of child marriage include Malawi, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Muhia said some COVID-19-related responses and restrictions had thwarted access to education and services including Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) and mental health, mostly for women and girls.

“There have been increased cases of Gender Based Violence (GBV) and severe economic distress,” she said.

With many families feeling the pinch of unemployment, economic or financial stress and caregivers looking for alternative means of survival, Muhia said child marriage was likely to increase as some families consider dowry as a means of livelihood.

She explained that COVID-19 was fuelling child marriage through disrupting the education and health sectors, increasing violence against girls and women, and through jinxing efforts of households to earn money.

She noted that access to online learning was low for girls while some families that were squirming under the effects of COID-19, preferred to educate boys ahead of girls.

On the health front, she said some girls were struggling to access SRHR services and commodities including contraceptives, raising the spectre of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

“It is important to raise and protect the voices of girls who are increasingly at risk,” she said.

The MPs heard that some CSOs were using social media to ensure that educational materials are translated into different languages, using radio to reach girls who might not have access to ITCs to mitigate the digital divide while working to prevent GBV in communities.

The economic impact of COVID-19 had led to loss of income at the household level, with the result that some girls were facing a disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work.

“Already vulnerable groups such as rural, isolated or slum-dwelling communities are worse off and there are increasing reports of survival sex as household incomes shrink,” she told the lawmakers.

Another disturbing development, according to Muhia, is that CSO space was shrinking in the wake of COVIF-19.

“We have seen a risk of roll back of gains that have been made. We know that (some) governments are using this crisis to deny people their human rights but we also know that there are governments that are now more willing to work with CSOs as they recognize the reach they have in their communities,” she noted.

She warned that budgets on education were in jeopardy in the face of competing priorities.

To respond to these challenges, she enjoined the lawmakers to ensure comprehensive measures to prevent and respond to child marriage; advocate for girl’s return to school after lockdown or pregnancy; ensure understanding of gender inequalities and harmful social norms; ensure sufficient funding to help communities recover from public health crises; and involve women and girls in planning and decision-making.

To mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on education and child marriage, she recommended safeguarding education spending; increasing efficiency, effectiveness and innovations; developing a comprehensive post COVID-19 plan for reopening of schools; promoting gender-sensitive approaches; and providing counselling support including helplines and girls’ clubs.

Meanwhile, Plan International has unveiled plans to undertake a rapid assessment on the impact of COVID-19 on ending child marriage in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Mr. Lazarus Mwale, a Regional Programme Manager with Plan International who also spoke during the meeting, revealed the plans.

“Gender and other rapid assessment reports, including media reports indicate an increase in teenage pregnancy and child marriage in countries already with a high prevalence of the practice particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

Accordingly, the envisaged regional rapid assessment seeks to generate evidence to inform the development or alignment of programme and advocacy strategies.

“The assessment is further intended to outline strategies for utilization of the SADC Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage and Protecting Children Already in Marriage during COVID-19 and in the pandemic recovery period,” he noted.

The African Union Goodwill Ambassador for Ending Child Marriage, Dr Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda saluted SADC PF “for leadership on advancing gender equality and promoting the protection of the rights of children.”

She noted that, in addition to developing the SADC Model Law on ending child marriage, the SADC PF had developed other far-reaching regional soft laws including the SADC Model Law on HIV and the SADC Model Law on Elections, thus being “trail-blazing and precedent-setting” in this regard.

Gumbonzvanda observed that the work done by SADC PF resonated with the ideals of the AU.

She said: “In 2014 the AU launched a campaign to end child marriage which was to implement the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. It was realized that we can no achieve Agenda 2063 of the AU unless and until we deal with very precise issues confronting the continent including gender inequality, the disempowerment of girls, abuse and violation of rights.”

She explained that child marriage was deemed a “critical indicator” that speaks to a range of violations of human rights.

She commended SADC Member States that launched national campaigns to end child marriage and implored MPs to help put in place appropriate legislation to inform policies and set appropriate standards.

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