By Bishow Parajuli
I joined several Government ministers, the First Lady of the Republic of Zimbabwe and several national and international partners on the launch of National Action Plan to end child marriages in Zimbabwe.
The launch was a timely undertaking and goes well with the Government’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls.
It was also a testament to the determination to fight against gender-based violence (GBV) not only for 16 days, but every day for 365 days.
Child marriage is deplorable and a grave violation of children’s rights. It must be treated as such.
Section 81 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution underlines that every child has a right to protection from economic and sexual exploitation, and from neglect or any form of abuse.
It is in this regard and in response to joint efforts by all stakeholders that in January 2016, the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe ruled that child marriages are unconstitutional.
This has a positive impact on many young girls’ physical and psychological well-being as well as their life choices.
Empowering the girl child is not only a moral obligation. It lays the foundation for a more healthy and prosperous society in which women and men are equal citizens.
It is illegal, amoral and unacceptable to marry off underage girls. They are children, not old enough to be brides and they should be given all due protection and opportunities to realise their full potential — dreams and aspirations as human beings.
Sadly, Zimbabwe is among countries with the highest prevalence of child marriages in Africa.
Approximately one in three girls are married off before the age of 18. Evidence suggests that most of these marriages are formalised through customary procedures. Girls who are married early are deprived not only of their fundamental human rights, but also the opportunity to further their education, which is an essential tool in changing their well-being.
Evidence demonstrates that limited access to education aggravates the risk of early marriages, with 43 percent of those aged 15-19 years with primary education being married compared to 20 percent of the same age group who had secondary education.
Isn’t it cruel to compel children to become mothers?
As you may know, child marriages lead to increased early teen pregnancies. Complications increase in young mothers, leading to a high number of deaths due to limited physiological and psychological development as well as unsafe abortions often leading to maternal death.
In line with the commitment of the United Nations and our solidarity in the joint effort to ending child marriages in Zimbabwe, the following key highlights proffer on what it takes to end the social scourge:
First, child marriage is a serious human rights violation, which affects rights of the girl child to health, education, equality, non-discrimination and the right to live free from violence and exploitation. As such, the UN and development partners supported harmonised cash transfer that is reaching some 300 000 vulnerable people, including children, which must be expanded, and cover all children who are exposed to such vulnerability. The National Social Security policy must be operationalised with increased allocation from National Budget, development partners and private sector contributions.
Second, child marriages place young girls and adolescents at risk of sexual, physical and psychological violence. Early pregnancies, also lead to higher maternal mortality if the girls are not fully developed before getting pregnant.
In this regard, under the UN and development partners supported Health Development Fund and the recently developed Spotlight Initiative — every effort will be done to ensure that sexual, reproductive health rights of the girl child are guaranteed.
Third, the UN stands ready to work with traditional leaders as custodians of culture and customary laws. It is often a question of social norms and cultural behaviour — but we know culture changes constantly — we need to put emphasis on methods for positive social norms and behavioural change.
Fourth, the engagement of fathers in healthy child development with equal measure as mothers is of paramount importance. Fathers’ involvement has been linked to higher school achievement and improved mental health for both boys and girls. UN together with other development partners, is working on advocacy for positive parenting and ending child marriages. This effort will be continued and strengthened.
Fifth, the UN looks forward to the Parliament of Zimbabwe passing the Bill to end child marriages, in addition to the urgent need for harmonisation of marriage laws with the Constitution.
This will ensure enforcement and will give legal ground for the implementation of the National Action Plan that is being launched today. Unless all stakeholders work together with a sense of urgency to protect the dignity and sanctity of our children, it must be recognised that laws alone cannot eliminate child marriages.
The UN remains committed, in line with the provisions of the Transitional Stabilisation Programme and the Sustainable Development Goals, to the implementation of the National Action Plan to end child marriages in Zimbabwe through ongoing programmes and with a new multi-year programme to end violence against women and girls.
Bishow Parajuli is the United Nations Resident Coordinator.