The Department of Mercantile and Private Law, under the Faculty of Management, Commerce and Law of the University of Venda held a Webinar on Child Marriages: An African Family Pandemic in the Midst of the Global COVID-19 Pandemic. This was a thought-provoking topic addressed by relevant experts. The Webinar took place on Thursday, 09 September 2021.
The Head of Department of Mercantile and Private Law, Prof Anthony Nwafor introduced the concept of the webinar as being to explore reasons for child marriages in Africa, the consequences of child marriages and to proffer solutions to this family and societal malady.
The first presenter, Mr Dewa Mavhinga, the Southern African Regional Director at Human Rights Watch, dissected the topic from his over two decades of empirical research and experience on issues of human and child’s rights. He identified three major drives behind child marriages in Africa.
The first is that of religious practice, which he referred to as “church doctrine”. He revealed that in many Christian church denominations, the “church doctrine” of forcing young girls from ages 12-16 to marry, is actively professed. The rationale for this practice is attributed to ensuring that girls marry as virgins, and to prevent sex outside the context of marriage.
The second major drive is founded on cultural practices. He stated that the primordial patriarchal practices and the notion of women as objects of sex persist in many African nations. Cultural practices that place a high premium on the sexual purity of the bride, force girls at a tender age to be married off. There is a stereotyping of young girls coming of age that they would not be able to keep themselves pure in relations with boys, hence they are given out in marriages. He described such practices as biased and unfair treatment of the girl child as boys who become sexually active at tender ages are not subjected to the same treatment.
The third major cause of child marriage in Africa as highlighted in the presentation is directly linked to poverty. The girl child is seen as a commodity to be sold to alleviate the family’s financial needs. He lamented that receiving a bride-price in a time where Covid-19 has wrecked financial havoc on many families, has become an even greater incentive than ever before in history as the education of the girl child is sacrificed for the temporary financial relief she could secure to the family through marriage.
Mr Mavhinga emphasised that all these three indefensible causes are systemic and require a change of mindset and conviction in communities. He concluded by referring to the African Charter of 1990 that prescribes the minimum age for child marriage as 18 years and urged that the charter prescription should be observed by the communities.
Ms Mundia Situmbeko, from an NGO called Girls Not Brides, which is based in London and has an African office in Nairobi. Her research findings on gender-based violence and matters such as female genital mutilation and child marriage, have been used to advise African national governments in addressing issues of gender equality and formulation of national and UN policies on child marriages.
In her presentation, Ms Situmbeko sought to provide a plausible answer to the question as to whether the Covid-19 pandemic is reversing the gains previously made to minimise and eradicate child marriages in Africa. The affirmative response to this question was attributed to the aggravated level of poverty spun on many families by the Covid-19 pandemic through loss of livelihoods thus prompting the giving out of the girl child in marriage to alleviate poverty.
Ms Situmbeko pointed to the unsettling and glaring truth that child marriages are essentially a gender issue. Girls are the victims and pay an inhumane price. Some cultures precede child marriage with another appalling and most humiliating practice, that of virginity testing, again targeting defenceless girls only. She described such obnoxious practices embedded in culture as violations of the rights of the girl child.
As a global issue, Ms Situmbeko advocated concerted global action against child marriages. She stressed that addressing the symptoms alone would not suffice, the society must change this grievous prejudicial attitude towards the girl child. Girls should be allowed to develop and mature like boys, given the same protection in their families and their dignity upheld under the law.
As the last presenter, Dr Admark Moyo who heads the Children and Law programme at the African Child Forum in Addis Ababa alluded to the progress made across the African region to eradicate such practices and to channel efforts towards educational and social development of the girl child. He emphasised that the minimum age for marriage is 18 years and that this is enshrined in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) as ratified by many African nations, and other national instruments. He said that requirement is non-negotiable as marriage being a very serious commitment demands some level of maturity.
Dr Moyo observed that the requirement in some national instruments for parental consent to child marriage constitutes an infringement on the right of the child. Parental consent to child marriage abnegates the child’s independent legal existence. He advocated the repeal of such laws where they exist. Dr Moyo continued to express that Laws alone whether embedded in treaties, conventions, policies and other national instruments are simply not sufficient to eradicate the incidences of child marriages and their inimical effects on the development of the child. He said the solution lies in a holistic transformative approach to child development especially the girl child.
During the questions and answers session towards the end of the webinar, the participants, who were in large numbers, received informed answers on all the questions put to the three speakers.
In her closing remarks, Mrs Puleng Letuka observed that child marriage severely and inimically has impact on children’s lives, their health and well-being. It truncates their education, retards the physical and emotional development of the child, leads to unprepared pregnancies and motherhood, and advised that this gospel should be extended to the rural communities where issues of child marriages are still rampant. She expressed gratitude to the presenters and the organisers of the programme and declared the programme as closed.
The Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management, Commerce and Law, Prof Modimowabarwa Kanyane welcomed the audience and encouraged them to participate and engage with the speakers.
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Date: 21 September 2021