Omundaungilo-Laimi Elias from Omundaungilo in Ohangwena region cannot recall how old was she when she became a wife, but today at the age of only 18 she is already a mother of two children, of which one has sadly passed on.
Just like Elias, Johanna Fillemon too cannot recall the specific age when she wedded her husband, Lazarus Hamukwaya, but she does estimate she was between 12 and 13 years old.
Fillemon’s estimate is based on the fact that she had her firstborn at the age of 15, by which time she and her husband, who is one year older than her, had been married for some years. Elias and Fillemon were both married off by their parents without their consent. Fillemon said when she returned from working as a domestic worker one day in the Uukwambi area of the Oshana Region she found a husband selected for her by her parents.
“I was not only married off young, but I also had to lose out on going to school because poverty forced me into child labour,” said a teary Fillemon.
Fillemon’s younger sister, 17-year of Selma, got married last year. Although Selma does not have a child yet, she is aware of expectations on her to bear children for her husband.
These were the narratives of young San girls who poured out their hearts to New Era on the sidelines of a community meeting at Omundaungilo on Monday.
The meeting took place with a delegation from the Office of the Vice-President, led by Gerson Kamatuka, deputy director for marginalised community affairs in that office. Also in attendance were the Ohangwena Regional Governor Usko Nghaamwa and Omundaungilo Constituency Councillor Festus Ikanda.
The age of consent for marriage in Namibia is 21 years. Those below this age who want to get married are required to have their parents’ consent to enter into a marital union. Those below 18 years can only enter into marriage, if they really so wish, with the explicit blessing from the home affairs ministry.
However, the three San girls were married according to a traditional ceremony and they said traditionally their parents usually arranged for marriages when they reached a certain age. They are usually married off to their age mates or slightly older men. But like many other girls their age who have never set foot in a classroom, they would have opted to go to school instead of getting married so young.
“It is not up to us to decide when to get married, our parents arrange our marriages,” said another girl who did not want to be identified.
Elias, whose now estranged husband lives in a different village where he is employed as a domestic worker, said if she could turn back the clock she will not agree to get married and advised other young girls not to agree to be trapped in a marriage.
“Get a qualification first then get married,” said Elias who dropped out of school in Grade 3.
When asked if they are happy in their marriages, the girls claim to be happily married because those who got married before them taught them how to behave in their marital homes.
However, although they do not wish to revoke their marriages, they spoke of how they needed to be given the choice of whether or not to get married, because then they would not have consented to marriage at such young age.
The girls also spoke of how they were robbed of their childhood and had to take up parenting responsibilities at a tender age.
They now have to do odd domestic jobs and rely on government drought relief food to feed their families.
Determined to break the chain, these three young mothers and many others their age have enrolled for literacy classes offered in the area.
“We want to be able to assist our children with homework hence the initiative to advance our writing and reading skills,” said one of the girls.
Although many of the girls in the area have never been in a classroom they can read and write a minimal amount of English. According to UNICEF’s state of the world’s children in 2016, at least two percent of children get married before they turn 15, while seven percent marry before they turn 18.