Parliamentarians key in ending child marriages

The scourge of child marriages has been a topical issue across the globe lately- with Zimbabwe having its own share of the limelight. There is also a growing consensus that legislators are key in shaping the campaign to end child marriages in the country.

parliament-phZimbabwe joined the AU Campaign to end child marriages in mid-2015. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development with support from UNICEF, UNWOMEN, UNFPA, the Child Rights and Women’s Rights Coalitions has been working on a National Action Plan to End Child Marriages and its related communication for development activities. The Constitutional Court ruling of January 2016 has been an impetus to move the agenda forward.   All these efforts are part of the global campaign to end child marriages.

Demographics touching on the growth of child marriage cases in Zimbabwe show that there is a worrying scale of the problem. The country is among African nations with high prevalence rate of child marriages that stands at 31 percent. A survey by ZIMSTAT indicates that one in three women aged 20 to 49 interviewed reported that they married before age 18. An estimated 4 percent married before the age of 15, the survey found.

In light of this grave scenario, parliamentarians in Zimbabwe have a key role in the fight against child marriages. Sessil Zvidzai, the Gweru Urban MP told The Zimbabwean that there are numerous ways in which the parliamentarians can up the fight to prevent existence of child brides.

“Firstly as parliamentarians, we can facilitate the passing of laws that can deter would-be perpetrators of child marriages. We are aware that there has been a decision by the courts which bars children under 18 to get married but there is no binding law to that effect which has been passed,” he said.

The former local government deputy minister added that the other way parliamentarians can assist in ending the trend is through advocating for national budgets that have allocations to fight against the scourge.

“As MPs we can say we will not pass any national budget say for 2017 if it does not channel some resources towards ending child marriages. We can even say we urge the minister to allocate a certain percentage of the total budget,” he said.

Mkoba MP, Amos Chibaya, said the parliamentarians who are opinion leaders, can set political agendas on ending child marriages.

“As MPs, we command huge following in our constituencies and so we can popularise the issue of ending child marriages when addressing crowds during political rallies. That way we will dissuade our supporters from letting children marry,” he said.

Chibaya also highlighted that as one of the roles of the MPs, they can actually monitor the implementation of policies that the government may set on ending child marriages and also try to bring the state to account on progress.

Recently, Mutare Central MP Innocent Gonese moved a motion that seeks to compel the Government to adopt the SADC model law on child marriages. The Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF) adopted the Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage and Protecting Children Already in Marriage on June 3 this year.

The 39th Plenary Assembly meeting held in Swaziland adopted the first ever model law which will require member states to harmonise their national laws to prevent child marriages in support of the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage in a Generation. The Assembly is the highest decision-making body of the SADC-PF, the deliberative forum that brings together National Parliaments from 14 SADC Member States and approximately 3,500 Parliamentarians.

In the event that MP Gonese’s motion is resoundingly supported, Zimbabwe will effectively become one of the countries on top of the map in Africa in terms of fighting the scourge of child marriages. The adoption of the model law will also fulfil the constitutional mandate to domesticate any regional standards that the country has adopted.

In line with developments at continental level, Harare West Constituency MP, Jessie Majome, presented the Draft Amendments to laws addressing Child Marriage to the Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa in his capacity as the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs.

The document proposes alignment of laws to the new Constitution by raising the age of consent to 18 years, to amend the Birth and Death Registration Acts; the Children’s Act, the Customary Marriages and the Marriage Act as well as the Criminal Law and Codification Act.

MP Majome shared that the amendments were inspired by her commitment to combat child marriages as the Zimbabwe National Chairperson of Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA), made at the Parliamentarians for Global Action Seminar to combat early and forced marriages held in Ghana, in 2014.

Roland Angerer, Plan International Regional Director in Eastern and Southern Africa, told the media soon after the adoption that the model piece of legislation will address the “common problem of inconsistencies and gaps in the laws which weaken the sanction mechanisms available to law enforcement agencies across the region.”

Globally, child rights activists contend that there are 720 million women and 156 million men who were married before their 18th birthday. Of these, approximately 250 million girls married before they reached age 15. If current trends of the prevalence of child marriage and of demographic growth continue, in the next 30 years there will essentially be no decrease in the number women and men who marry as children.

The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA , which is seized with ensuring that every woman, man and child enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity, has also weighed in on child marriages. The organisation has already indicated that prevalence and inequities associated with child marriage will result in a situation where by 2020, some 142 million girls will be married by their 18th birthday if current trends continue. This translates into 14.2 million girls married each year, or 37,000 girls married each day.

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