UNICEF applauds fight against child marriages

Speech by Sam Muradzikwa UN Policy & Chief of Social Policy and Research (UNICEF) during the LRF Golf Day in Harare on 7 April 2017 held under the theme, “Help Us Stop Child Marriages”.

From the outset, allow me to thank you all for this demonstration of commitment towards empowering women and girls and protecting their human rights. Zimbabwe is among the first countries on the continent to launch the African Union Campaign on Ending Child Marriage after Zambia, Madagascar, Burkina Faso and Niger. This indeed demonstrates the Government’s commitment to ending this gross violation of human rights.
Child marriage is a challenge not only here in Zimbabwe but also globally. This year alone, about 13 million children – most of them girls – will be married before they turn 18. About 4million of them will be married before they turn 15. This translates into 37,000 child marriages every day!
If we take the case of Zimbabwe, this country has one of the highest levels of child marriages, ranking at number 41 globally. According to the Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey of 2011, 1 in 20 girls aged 15 years and 1 in 3 girls aged 18 have started childbearing. The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey of 2014 shows that 1 in 3 women aged between 20 and 49 reported being married before the age of 18 while 1 in 4 girls between 15 and 19 years are currently married.
The majority of these marriages happen in rural areas across Zimbabwe but districts like Sanyati, Makonde, Kariba Rural, and Chiredzi stand out in having a proportion above 35%. But child marriages are not restricted to rural areas only. Almost half of all teenagers in Epworth, an urban area, are married.

These rates are alarming and unacceptable but they bring up one basic issue: the role of poverty, which is so endemic in rural and peri-urban areas.
Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of child marriage.
Where poverty is acute, parents may feel that giving a daughter in marriage will reduce family expenses, or even temporarily increase their income. This is usually the case where bride price is involved.
Equally true, after these girls are married, they are likely to continue to be poor. The 2012 National Census shows that girls who married before ages 15 and 18 are three times more likely to live in poor households than those who married later.
What does this mean? If we are to end child marriages, we need to break the vicious cycle of poverty. But how do we do that in a context where poverty is so widespread? Allow me to highlight two strategies:
We must ensure that no girl drops out of school – for whatever reasons.

The longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to get married. This not only entails addressing the social norms that undervalue a girl’s education, it also means adopting deliberate policies of investing heavily in education, thereby reducing the burden on families arising from the current system of school fees and levies. This is an issue that even the President himself spoke about during the official opening of this year’s Children’s Parliament. Even within the current difficult economic environment, safeguarding budgetary allocations to the education sector, and in fact increasing them, is absolutely critical to Zimbabwe’s future as an educated and highly competitive nation.
We must expand social protection mechanisms to reduce vulnerabilities of girls in poor families.

Financial assistance extended to poor families enables them to avoid harmful coping mechanisms – such as marrying off girls. In this regard, we are delighted that the social protection policy will soon be discussed in Cabinet and will, among other things, make social protection a national policy requiring better harmonization across Government ministries and departments, scaling up of interventions, and allocation of much-needed resources. Social protection programmes, such as social cash transfers, not only help families to meet their immediate needs, they also help to keep their children in school and gives them the chance to break out of the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
Child marriage does not even deserve to be called a “marriage”. Marriage by its very nature entails the coming together of two people in a consensual union. Unfortunately, as we know very well, a girl under the age of 18 cannot possibly be regarded as old enough to know what is in her best interests, or leave alone, to enter into a marriage contract. This is where Zimbabwe’s current laws on marriage fall short.

While the constitution is clear in stating that only persons aged above 18 years can start a family, the Customary Marriage Act does not even stipulate a minimum age for marriage. It therefore condones child marriages. Although the Marriage Act allows a girl below the age of 16 to be married as long as the Minister of Justice has given consent, in reality, this rarely happens. It also allows girls between the ages of 16 and 18 to be married as long as their parents or guardians have given consent. If, as we know, parents see nothing wrong with marrying off their children, then this law is problematic. In short, we would like to see a speedy alignment of current laws on marriage with the constitution. A stronger and more harmonized legal framework is an important step towards ending child marriage.

But the law alone, no matter how good, will not end the practice. We must address the norms and beliefs that drive child marriage. To do this effectively, we need to be alive to the cultural nuances that drive it. For instance we know that in most communities, child marriages are a result of well-orchestrated social actions, backed by established marriage customs. Communities, often presided over by family patriarchs, respectable community matrons, and traditional and religious leaders who are driven by noble intentions, cherish these customs. Communities often view child marriage as a norm; they see nothing wrong with it. Hence, any engagement should consider these perspectives.

In this regard, it is important that we give more support to community leaders across the country, such as our chiefs and traditional leaders, who are proactively coming up with alternative ways of ending child marriage. Such community-driven solutions are rooted in a firm understanding of what works and does not work, and will be sustainable in the long term.
In conclusion, on behalf of the United Nations family in Zimbabwe, I would like to reiterate our commitment through the Zimbabwe United Nations Development Framework to support the government’s efforts in ending child marriages. Our support will especially focus in implementing the highly anticipated National Action Plan to End Child Marriages. The United Nations will continue providing support towards making the security of women, girls and children a reality. This includes advocating for supportive policies, legislation and dialogue about girls’ human rights and dignity.

We will further support robust advocacy to ensure that girls stay in school and those who drop out have access to vocational skills. We will continue to provide sexual and reproductive health and HIV information and services to adolescents and improving their social well-being.

We will contribute towards strengthening the child protection system to track, account and safeguard children from early marriage; to mobilize communities to address negative social norms and support decisive leadership and increased political will at community and national levels.

Let us work together to end child marriages and to ensure that girls in Zimbabwe and around the world are afforded the childhood they deserve.
I thank you.

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