When marriage is made in ‘hell’

When marriage is made in ‘hell’

MASERU – It was a marriage made in hell.

Mpho got married when she was only 15 years old.

She fell victim to a “wicked rumour” that a local herdboy, who used to visit her neighbor, had made her pregnant.

Although she denied she was pregnant, the community insisted she was pregnant.

With the community ganging up against her, she eventually succumbed to the pressure and married her husband, against her will.

“My husband was a herder for our neighbour and just because he used to visit our home, community members started a rumour that he had made me pregnant,” she says.

“Of course I was not pregnant but because of the pressure, he married me.”

Mpho’s story as told by the United Nations Populations’ Fund (UNFPA) vividly illustrates the problem of child marriages in Lesotho.

The Demographic and Health Survey Report of 2014, released in 2016, says 17.7 percent of girls aged between 15-19 years were married during that year while only a mere one percent of boys of the same age were married.

According to the 2016 Population and Housing Census, child marriages in Lesotho stand at a staggering 24.3 percent.

To address the challenge, a local lobby group, Help Lesotho, last week commemorated the International Day of the Girl Child at Alliance Franciase.

Help Lesotho representative, Felleng Machake, called on the government of Lesotho to strictly enforce the Child Protection and Welfare Act to reduce the rate of child marriages in the country.

Help Lesotho is running the Girls Voices programme to better the standard of living of children.

“Because most of us come from very poor families, our parents see us as source of wealth. The temptation of lobola (bride’s price) is difficult to resist even though it yields a temporary gain for most families,” Machake said.

“When will it be the time to prioritise the well-being of girl children instead of trading them for such small benefits?”

In her presentation Machake said each girl who is forced to marry is a victim. As victims their lives are miserable, they cry every day as they are being abused physically, emotionally and mentally.

“We are young, not only in terms of age but some of us are too tiny and our bodies are too immature to carry another human being when we become pregnant against our wishes,” Machake said.

“The evidence is clear that child marriage is harmful not only to girls but the entire community. Why are we never involved in decisions that affect us most?” she said.

“May the girls’ grievances be heard and touch the souls of those with power and authority to help them,” she said.

She also called on policy makers to pass tougher laws and impose harsher penalties for adults who allow their children to marry.

The UNFPA says child marriages deny girls the right to choose whom they marry and when they marry.

Tohlang Ngakane, from the UNFPA, said because of entrenched gender inequalities, disasters and conflict can make a bad situation even worse for girls.

“They and their families are struggling to survive and are left with few choices, leaving girls even more vulnerable to child marriage, sexual and gender based violence, coupled with human trafficking, rape and sexual slavery,” Ngakane said.

Ngakane said despite the challenges that girls face, many of them still manage to play a critical role in their homes and communities, even in crisis situations.

“They are often the first responders who care for their families and establish networks that produce the social capital and resilience within their communities for survival,” Ngakane said.

The UNICEF describes child marriage as “a formal marriage or informal union before the age of 18. It is a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are disproportionately the most affected”.

Lesotho’s Child Protection and Welfare Act does not specifically describe child marriage as an offence but simply bans the abuse of children, which it defines as “any form of harm or ill-treatment deliberately inflicted on a child, and includes. . . (b) sexually abusing a child . . .  (d) exposing or subjecting a child to behaviour that may socially, emotionally, physically or psychologically harm the child”.

Instead of expressly banning marriages of people below the age of 18 years it simply defines a child as a person below that age.

It is silent on the children’s own decisions to marry or co-habit without involving parents.

The country’s Marriage Act of 1974 only allows marriage to be solemnised at the age of 21 for both men and women.

However, with the written permission of the minister, girls can marry at age 16 and boys at 18.

This law was enacted before an 18-year-old person could be legally described as an adult.

The National Multisectoral Child Protection Strategy 2014/5 – 2018/9 and its Plan of Action 2014/5 – 2016/7, the budget of which is over M14 million, does not say anything about child marriage.

Social Development Minister ’Matebatso Doti, who is in the forefront in the fight against child marriages together with Queen ’Masenate Mohato Seeiso, said “our country is a member of the African Union and each member state has a mandate to protect children and end all things that can stand in the way of the well-being of a child”.

Prime Minister Thomas Thabane will officially launch the anti-child marriage campaign next Thursday and Friday.

Rose Moremoholo

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