Sub-Saharan African countries have the highest prevalence of child marriages in the world, with almost 40 percent of children in some SADC countries married before they reach the age of 18, says a Lusaka-based constitutional lawyer.
Child marriage is mainly attributed to poverty, gender inequity, tradition, and insecurity particularly in times of conflict, limited education and the lack of adequate legal frameworks in SADC member states
Constitutional law expert Eva Jhala painted this depressing picture when she gave her presentation at a SADC-PF gathering for journalists, editors and parliamentarians on sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR).
“Malawi and Mozambique are amongst ten countries in the world with the highest rates of child marriage. In both countries over 50 percent of children are married before they are 18 years of age,” Jhala informed the recent SRHR workshop that took place in Johannesburg in South Africa.
“In Mozambique and Malawi one in two girls is married before she turns 18 years of age,” said Jhala, who has drafted a Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage that is also intended to protect children already in marriage.
Effects of child marriage
Child marriage significantly reduces a country’s efforts to combat poverty and will impact negatively on achieving key Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG 1 – which seeks to end poverty, SGD 4 – which addresses education and SGD 5 – which addresses gender inequity.
“Child marriage significantly undermines all these goals and thereby also undermines a country’s economic and social development,” stated Jhala.
Child marriage has life-threatening health consequences, as these girls endure an early pregnancy after being coerced into an early pregnancy “to prove fertility.”
“Further, girls may not have access to contraceptives and other planning services and thus are unable to control the timing of their pregnancies,” she said.
“This is despite the fact that pregnancy complications are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 years, especially in low and middle-income countries according to the World Health Organisation (WHO),” Jhala stated.
She also pointed out the fact that early marriage has far-reaching physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional consequences, such as serious threats to sexual and reproductive health, maternal and newborn mortality and morbidity.
She also revealed that SADC countries, such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Seychelles have criminalised marital rape, although others such as Zambia and Botswana have failed to criminalise this malaise.
She suggests the media can help break the culture of silence and high levels of stigma and discrimination associated with SRHR issues by promoting openness.
The media also has the capacity to influence key audiences, such as policymakers, programme implementers, stakeholders and the general public.