UNU-GEST chaired the side event ‘The Road to End Child Marriage in Africa’ during 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women

On March 15 this year, during the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 62), UNU-GEST chaired the side event ‘The Road to End Child Marriage in Africa’. The event was organized by UN Women Malawi and the governments of Malawi and Zambia with support from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Iceland and UNU-GEST.

The event was moderated by Kristjana Sigurbjörnsdóttir, project manager at UNU-GEST, with the objective to highlight the issue of child marriage and how it is being successfully tackled in Malawi and Zambia through traditional and elected officials. Panellists were high-level representatives from the governments of Malawi and Zambia but both countries have presented themselves at the forefront of global efforts to eradicate child marriage, demonstrating progress at the national and community levels with traditional leaders playing a lead role surrounding these efforts. In both countries national strategies are being implemented to end child marriage signalling political will at the highest level, which is critical for the promotion of women and girls’ rights and the achievement of the Global Goals for sustainable development.

In her opening remarks, Dr. Esmie Kainja, Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Gender, Disability and Social Welfare in Malawi, stressed that the government of Malawi values partnerships when it comes to eradicating child marriages in the country, both in the communities locally and at the national level. The Minister of Gender of Malawi, Hon. Jean Kalilani told of the passion in Malawi to safeguard health and education of the girl child and hence to wipe out child marriage. In her view, great strides have been made in recent years and the 2017 amendment to the constitution to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 years is the government sending the message that girls are to stay in school, emphasising education first and marriage later. Together with community leaders, the government is condemning the marriage of young girls and working with schools and education authorities to work towards a supportive and safe environment to keep girls in schools, especially in rural areas. Extremely important figures in the eradication of child marriage are community leaders and the next speaker at the event was Senior Chief Kachindamoto of Dedza District in Malawi. Despite the constitutional amendments, now forbidding marriage before the age of 18, Malawian children can still marry with parental consent under customary law. Since becoming chief she has worked tirelessly to annul marriage of young girls and children, often referred to as the terminator of child marriages. Her method is working directly with families and girls themselves and supporting their return to school once their marriage has been annulled as they still face financial challenges to be able to attend school, as the poverty trap that got them into this situation still reigns. To tackle this, more financial support is necessary at the community level to meet the cost of school uniforms, fees and transport. Another element is making the way to school safe for girls and the school environment appropriate for their needs for example during their monthly period.

A powerful video was screened at the event to highlight the work on ending child marriage in Malawi, which can be accessed through the event here.

Hon. Emerine Kabanshi, Minister for Community Development in Zambia pointed out that 80% of the population of Zambia is below 35 years and that the rate of girl marriage is way too high. It jeopardises young girls´ health, exposes them to pregnancy way too early and causes health risks, even with fatal consequences. Education is unfortunately not a priority among the poorest households in rural areas where feeding your family is a constant struggle. Consequently, the harmful traditional practice of marrying young daughters off has remained unchallenged in rural areas. In the MP´s view, eradicating rural poverty is the key to changing the practice of girl marriage and Zambia has worked with partners in providing cash transfers to girls and their families to allow them to attend school even married and as young mothers.

Ambassador Kristín Árnadóttir, Special Envoy for Gender Equality at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Iceland stressed that child marriage is a grave violation of girls´ human rights and it remains way too widespread in 2018. It is a sad reality that girls in rural areas are more likely to get married than their peers who live in urban areas. Iceland remains a dedicated partner to Malawi and recognises the authority of national and community leaders in their work towards accelerating progress to end marriage of young girls.

Emma Phiri, Gender Analyst at Central Statistical Office in Zambia, reiterated the political will and commitment of her government to end child marriage through implementing the national action plan to end child marriage, working in partnerships with local initiatives and structures, including traditional leaders like in Malawi.

Dr. Izeduwa Derex-Briggs, director of UN Women for East and South Africa, highlighted how UN Women has fostered partnerships around the eradication of child marriage. The UN system has come together on this issue as this is not only a human rights issue but the right thing to do, safeguarding children´s lives. To marry off or have sexual relations with a 10-year old girls is not acceptable! Building on the 70-year old UN Charter on Human Rights and the almost 40-year old CEDAW, 20 African countries are now in the process of amending policies and laws to address the issue. Despite this momentum and great efforts in many countries in the region, there is still a rising incidence of child marriage in many African countries. Where progress has been made, countries are linking high political will to change the norms with national and local stakeholders as well as traditional authorities, as is happening in Malawi and Zambia. The key is to hold government accountable when they are not amending harmful laws and practices in accordance with the international treaties and commitments they have ratified.

UNU-GEST alumni (2014), Mzati Mbeko who is the national director of WLSA Malawi (Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust), underlined that despite the achievement in Malawi in amending the constitution and securing the minimum age of 18 for marriage, very important work lies ahead in closing legal loopholes and harmonising laws to make it impossible to marry off girls, and children in general, under the age of 18 years. The battle to raise the minimum age of marriage was won but the war on child marriage rages on.

Speakers highlighted that there should be no tolerance for child marriage, which implies that boys as well as girls are married off by their families while patriarchy and gendered realities have many more girls being married off in their childhood. The event called for this injustice to be ended through strengthened partnerships at all levels; internationally, nationally and most importantly, locally. 

An article by Mercy Chaluma from Malawi. UNU-GEST alumni (2018) on the side event waspublished in the Nation, Malawi´s leading newspaper.