It is the 3rd of June, 2016. The clock ticks towards 4pm at the Royal Swazi Hotel here during the 39th Plenary Assembly Session of the SADC Parliamentary Forum.
It has been approximately a year and a half since the SADC PF and other partners began developing a SADC model law on eradicating child marriage and protecting those already in marriage. The Plenary Assembly Session is the highest decision-making body of SADC PF – the deliberative body that brings together 14 national parliaments of Southern Africa.
Today, the region’s parliamentarians stand on the cusp of history. After nearly nine hours of intense debate and poring over all parts of the draft model law, a bold decision must be made.
In attendance are about 190 people. They include Namibian Speaker of the National Assembly Professor Peter Katjavivi and several of his counterparts, members of national parliaments, and traditional leaders – the first time the latter have attended a SADC Plenary Assembly Session. Also present are observers. Mostly representatives of organisations that collaborate with SADC PF.
Special care has been taken to develop a regional law with so much commonality that it can be easily adapted or adopted as member states enact or refine national laws to eradicate child marriage, which Dr Esau Chiviya, Secretary General of SADC PF, has branded “an abomination”.
Now the region’s lawmakers must adopt the model law or throw it out. After an impassioned submission, Zimbabwean lawyer and parliamentarian, Innocent Gonese, rests his case with a plea to the plenary to adopt the law.
Perched on the podium, Malawian lawmaker, Joseph Njobvuyalema – the deputy president of SADC PF – is acting president during this plenary. He is presiding over proceedings with magisterial seriousness.
With his head tilted and peering over his spectacles, he calls for order.
“Honourable members,” he says, “I now pose the main question: those who think the SADC model law on eradicating child marriages and protecting those already in marriage should be adopted, say ‘Aye’.”
A young woman – she can’t be more than 25 years old – sits nervously, eyes wide open with anticipation. She is so young that she looks out of place in this august house. I make a mental note to interview her later.
In response to Njobvuyalema’s directive, there is a loud chorus of ‘Aye!’
Out of formality, he says: “Those of the contrary opinion, say ‘Nay’.”
There is so much silence you can hear a snail clearing its throat a kilometres away.
Once again, the acting president’s authoritative voice booms through the public address system.
“The ‘Ayes’ have it.”
He bangs his fist on the table, closing the matter.
While many delegates in the house cheer and others hug each other with excitement, the young woman raises two clenched fists into the air, closes her eyes and smiles.
As soon as I can, I approach her and introduce myself. I am curious to know why she is here.
“My name is Chipasha Iliamupu. I am 23 years old and I am a child marriage survivor from Zambia,” she tells me.
She agrees to tell me her story and our interview begins. My 20 years of journalism experience have not prepared me for what I am about to hear.
“Where were you born, and how many siblings do you have?” I ask.
“I was born in Livingstone. I have five brothers and two sisters. I am the second from last,” she says.
“What did your parents do for a living?”
“They were never in any formal employment. They had tailoring skills and were peasant farmers.”
“How old were you when you started school?”
“I was seven years old at Kalumwange Primary School in the Western Province of Zambia.”
“Teachers often ask first graders what they want to be when they grow up. What did you aspire to become?”
“My mother saw a freedom fighter in me. She called me ‘Mama Kankasa’ (one of the freedom fighters during Zambia’s struggle for independence). I said I wanted to be an ambassador.”
“When and how did the going get tough for your family?”
“When my mother passed on. Things got very hard.”
“How old were you and were all your siblings in school?”
“I was nine. All my siblings were in school, but the majority ended in primary school. Only two of my siblings reached Grade 9.”
“Did your father remarry or did he try to raise you and your siblings alone?”
“He never remarried.”
“How was your marriage arranged and how did you meet your husband?”
“I saw him for the first time on the day that I was married off. He was 20 years older than me. He had three children with three different women. I was nearly 15 years old.”
“How were you prepared for what you were getting into?”
“My tradition prepares girls for marriage at puberty, regardless of one’s age. I had already been taught to maintain a home at the age of 14.”
“What is the name of that cultural initiation, how long does it take, who does the teaching and what were you taught?”
“It is called Sikenge of the Lozi people. The duration is dependent on how slow or fast one is on catching instructions. The curriculum includes how to handle a man in the bedroom, how to care for a family and how to treat in-laws. The most repeated and emphasised thing is to be secretive about whatever treatment one receives in the marriage home. Fast learners only learn for a month. Slow learners can go for three or more months.”
“How much was your father paid in lobola and why do you think he married you off?”
“My lobola was Zambian Kwacha 300 (about US$30). He married me off due to financial constraints. Besides, I had already been prepared for marriage. I dropped out of school in Grade 8.”
“How was life in your new home?”
“Life was pathetic. Our relationship lacked intimacy. I fell pregnant within four months of my arrival. My first sexual encounter was very, very painful and that triggered a lot of things in my mind. After being prepared for sweet, enjoyable sex, I got the opposite.”
“Were you physically, emotionally or sexually abused?”
“Yes. He never used to prepare me for intercourse. He just used to force himself on me. He used to beat me up a lot and strip me naked in public. He ill-treated me. He would write budgets for me and give me exact amounts of money.”
“How old were you when your child was born?”
“I was 15 years and 10 months old. I had serious problems during labour because it was prolonged and difficult. After a while I met officials from Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) and decided to go back to school. That made my husband more violent.”
“What prompted your desire to go back to school?”
“I thought I was being subjected to inhuman treatment due to lack of education.”
“How difficult was it for you to walk out of that marriage?”
“It wasn’t easy. I was all alone. My relatives didn’t want me to leave. Others said I would suffer if I left. I filed for divorce and followed the procedures alone. The only ‘relatives’ I had were the documents I got from the Victim Support Unit of the police.”
“Did you succeed?”
“Yes. The court ruled that I must have custody of the child and that the father must support her until she is 18 but he threatened me; said whatever happened to the child – even if she died – I mustn’t inform him.”
“Where did you go and what did you walk away with?”
“I went to my uncle’s house. I walked away with the freedom to pursue my dreams academically and to strive towards self-actualisation. I went back to school in 2010. It wasn’t easy. Female teachers stigmatized and ridiculed me. I overcame that by confiding in the head teacher. He understood and supported me.”
“How did that help you?”
“I excelled in my studies so much that I was selected to represent my province on an educational tour to Kenya. I am now a second year student at the University of Zambia, reading towards the award of a degree in linguistics.”
I ask her what she would want to see the region’s parliamentarians do now that the model law has been adopted.
“They should make the rights of my seven-year-old daughter and other children a priority by implementing the law. They should involve young people in discussions about issues that affect young people. No one knows where the shoe pinches like the wearer. Young people learn more from other young people. Create a platform for them,” she says.
Following the adoption of the model law, solidarity and congratulatory messages are coming thick and fast.
Sweden has partnered with SADC PF since 2007. From 2014 it has been funding a four-year SRHR, HIV and AIDS Governance programme. It wishes SADC PF all “success with the execution of the model law, in particular the domestication and monitoring.”
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) says today is “a wonderful day” and congratulates SADC PF MPs for making a “landmark decision which has the power to transform the lives of millions of girls.”
Fighting back tears, Ms Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda, the African Union’s Ambassador for Ending Child Marriage praises the MPs, telling them the adoption of the model law is “precedent-setting”.
The Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA) says the adoption marks “a turning point in the struggle for the rights of the girl … an example of parliamentary excellence.”
Civil society organisations salute the MPs for “enduring a long and painful process of delivering this baby (model law), which is alive, healthy and eagerly awaited out there by tens of thousands of people”.
The East African Legislative Assembly says SADC PF MPs have come of age and urges all SADC member states to “support the long overdue transformation of SADC PF into a SADC Regional Parliament.”
The SADC Secretariat says the SADC PF MPs have taken a “step in the right direction” and says the model law is consistent with the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, which prohibits marriage of anyone below 18 years of age.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) calls the adoption “an historic initiative”.
The excitement is understandable. UNFPA reckons that in East and Southern Africa, 34 percent of girls are married before the age of 18 – seven million girls every year. Over a million of them are below the age of 15. That makes them vulnerable. UNDP estimates that in at least five countries in SADC, almost 40 percent of children are married before the age of 18. Two of the 10 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriages are in the SADC region.
One man – Harvard-trained lawyer and Botswana Member of Parliament, Duma Boko, – follows the congratulatory messages seemingly unmoved. I approach him and fish for his reaction and what he would like to see going forward.
“Adoption is a very important step,” he tells me. “It expresses ideals. The next is to have all SADC countries incorporate, enact or promulgate the provisions of this model law into their domestic legal frameworks. It is only at that point that we will begin to celebrate because that would provide a concrete measure of whether the goals enunciated in the model law are being realized in practice. That would be the ideal time to pop the champagne and celebrate.”
For Gonese, who strenuously argued for the adoption of the model, today was just another day in parliament.
For Iliamupu, her daughter and millions of the region’s girls and boys – many undocumented – the hopeful wait for implementation of this law and results begins now.
- Moses Magadza the author of this feature is a Communications and Advocacy Specialist at the SADC-Parliamentary Forum (SADC PF) Secretariat in Windhoek.