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The scourge of early marriages

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MASERU – AS a young girl, ‘Mamasole* dreamt big. And marriage was not part of those dreams. Yet, she was married at 15 years old after being abducted by her boyfriend. She is one of thousands of girls who have been forced to abandon school and lofty dreams of a bright future to become housewives at an early age.

In Lesotho, the incidences of child marriages stand at 24 percent, according to the 2016 Lesotho Census report.

Though lower than many other countries, the figure still paints a gloomy picture of the situation in Lesotho. Stakeholders say child marriages are a threat to the future well-being of children, especially the girl child.

Many viewed the move by the Ministry of Social Development to amend the Child Protection and Welfare Act of 2011 as a positive step towards ending child marriages.

However, the 10th parliament dissolved this month before finalising the amendment.

In the meantime, children continue to be victims of this harmful practice.

‘Mamasole* is one of them.

Forced into marriage as a teenager in 2019, ‘Mamasole was forced to abandon her dreams.

“I had big plans and early marriage was not one of them,” she told thepost.

But then, she had no say in the matter, never mind that it was her life at stake.

She was only 15-years old when was abducted by her then boyfriend, a herd boy, to become his wife.

“I was forced to abandon school to become his wife. He told me that I was now his wife when he abducted me. I did not want to go with him and I told him how I felt. But he did not listen, he forced me,’’ she said.

Her mother tried to rescue her. But then, that was a man’s decision to make in Basotho culture so her father overruled the rescue plan and insisted that she stay married.

‘‘I felt so angry but there was nothing I could do except to accept the situation even though it was difficult. I stayed because I felt like I had no choice,’’ said ’Mamasole, who suffered physical and emotional abuse in the relationship.

‘‘Getting married and having a child at a young age was very challenging. We fought a lot with my then husband over my cell phone because he suspected me of cheating on him. He called me names and he would beat me,” she said.

She escaped the ordeal after her sister invited her to visit for the holidays last year. “I never looked back. I didn’t return to him.”

Now aged 18, she is yet to recover from the ordeal.

Her experience is one of many in a country where six out of 10 girls aged between 15 and 19 years are mothers or pregnant with their first child, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s 2021 report.

Despite efforts by stakeholders to end child marriages, the problem still persists and stakeholders bemoan contradicting laws, harmful cultural norms and practices, poverty and teenage pregnancies.

Stakeholders also blame working in silos, parenting negligence, orphanhood, a culture of abduction, peer pressure, alcohol and substance abuse for rampant cases of child marriages.

Like many countries in the SADC region, child marriages in Lesotho are a scourge that needs to be eradicated.

Advocate Libakiso Matlho, a human rights lawyer with the Lesotho Council of NGOs, said contradictions in the pieces of legislation regarding marriage are working against efforts by stakeholders to end the problem.

Advocate Matlho said the complexity in the law might hamper Princess Senate Mohato Seeiso’s tenacious fight against child marriage.

Princess Senate is widely regarded as a national champion in the fight against child marriages.

Under customary law, one can get married upon reaching puberty. According to the Marriage Act, a girl can legally marry at 16 and a boy at the age of 18 with consent.

“This law even seems to be biased against the girls as their age of marriage is lower than that of boys,” Advocate Matlho said.

She said although the Child Protection Welfare Act seeks to protect the rights of children, “it is not very helpful when it comes to harmful practices such as child marriages as it has repealed neither the customary law nor the Marriage Act”.

“This apparent lack of harmonisation of laws remains a major hurdle for prosecutors, magistrates as well as other law enforcement agencies regarding which law they have to use,” noted Advocate Matlho.

She said child marriages violate children’s human rights and expose victims to abuse.

“Children born within that family can also be exposed to child marriages and it becomes a continuous cycle. And worse as they drop out of school they end up joining sex work to fight poverty if that marriage doesn’t work out.”

Advocate Matlho said marital rape and emotional abuse are very common in such marriages and the cases are hardly reported.

She said the amendment of the Child Protection Welfare Act included criminalising child marriages and incorporating strong punishments amongst other measures.

“The failure to finalise the amendments means we will still have the same problems and we don’t know whether the next parliament will prioritise it,” said Advocate Matlho.

She noted that the implication is that there will be a delay in the enactment of the amendments as there will be new MPs yet to be informed and educated about amendments that were close to finalisation.

“For the new MPs to catch the momentum takes long and it also depends on how much they will be convinced on the importance of the amendments.

“Our achievement will mean nothing as we don’t know whether those that will be in government will prioritize those issues. There is no guarantee,” she opined.

She criticised the country’s attitude towards child marriages.

“Our approach is bad when it comes to children’s rights and how we raise our children as some are born in abusive families and it affects other people. We need to change our mindsets,” she said.

The Ministry of Social Development Director of Child Protection, Mookho Motheo-Lekhanya, described child marriage as a bad practice that negatively affects a child’s life.

Motheo-Lekhanya said the ministry has drafted a legal framework that criminalises child marriage through the amendment of the Child Protection Welfare Act.

“The ministry was going through the amendment of the Child Protection Welfare Act to include a section that makes child marriage an offence. Unfortunately, parliament dissolved without incorporating it,” Motheo-Lekhanya said.

“It is a major challenge for the ministry, law enforcement agencies and it also discourages our development partners,” she said.

Motheo-Lekhanya said Quthing and Mokhotlong districts have the highest prevalence of child marriages.

She said ending child marriages should not be the ministry’s responsibility alone but should be a joint venture with other stakeholders.

“It affects everyone, hence it needs to start at the community level through our traditional leaders,” she said.

She said their intervention differs from case to case but often the ministry offers counseling amongst other measures.

“’It isn’t easy to intervene if it is a hidden case. But, when we are alerted, we intervene, working in collaboration with the police,” she said, adding that the ministry frequently holds men and children’s forums countrywide as part of an awareness raising and empowerment campaign. She said community and district child protection teams also frequently hold sensitization campaigns.

In addition, the ministry has developed a parenting booklet on raising a child to act as a guiding tool for parents, and has established a toll-free child helpline for people to anonymously report any form of violence against children.

“However, what we really need to do is to criminalise child marriages. It is only then that our efforts can become successful. Right now, it’s as if our efforts are going into a bottomless pit.”

She said the ministry has also embarked on community development initiatives in support of families to make a living to reduce poverty, another cause of child marriage.

Gender Director, ’Matau Futho-Letsatsi, said child marriage is a gender issue.

The ministry has embarked on a national campaign to initiate community dialogue with parents and children to raise awareness on the negative impact of child marriages and harmful cultural practices that put the lives of children in danger.

She said the National Strategic Development Plan II highlights the importance of incorporating gender equality in all government programmes.

“We are now lobbying other ministries to include gender in their programming,” Futho-Letsatsi said.

She said the country is slow in addressing issues such as child marriages due to the history of Basotho and their slow nature to adapt to change.

“Compared to other countries, we take time to address issues of concern,” she said, adding that the reluctance to decriminalise child marriage has to do with historical practices. “This practice is very harmful and it needs to stop as it affects children negatively.”

The Ministry of Education’s CEO for Secondary Education, ’Mabakubung Seutloali, said child marriage and pregnancy has resulted in many children dropping out of school.

“We lose a lot of pupils to child marriage and pregnancy,” Seutloali said.

“Preventing early and unplanned pregnancies and child marriage are therefore an important component of a wider response to ensuring the right to education for all,” she said.

According to a 2017 United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report, Lesotho is among countries with high rates of early and unintended pregnancies.

The report shows that 60 percent of girls between 15 and 19 years are mothers or pregnant with their first children.

In 2013, Eastern and Southern African Ministers of Health and Education committed to teaching Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) to adolescents and young girls in schools and making it compulsory from Grade 4 – 12.

“However, we learnt recently that it wasn’t taught in all schools although teachers were capacitated. Their explanation was that they were afraid to talk to the children about the subject,” Seutloali said.

“We are currently doing follow ups to capacitate teachers again, inclusive of providing psychosocial support,” she said.

In 2017, UNESCO conducted an assessment that revealed that 12-14 year olds are initiating sexual activities.

In 2021, the Ministry of Education collaborated with the UNFPA to commission a consultant to develop a policy that will manage students’ pregnancies at school and protect them from all forms of abuse.

Schools usually dismiss pregnant girls and boys from initiation schools. The policy was meant to align with the Child Protection Welfare Act.

The Education Act of 2010 gives the principal, in consultation with the school board, powers to expel students.

Data from School Report Cards (SCR) collected from schools participating in the School Improvement Project (SIP) indicates that pregnancy and early marriage are the number one reason for girls dropping out of secondary school at 46.7 percent in 2018 and 45.7 percent in 2019.

The Police’s Child and Gender Protection Unit (CGPU) Officer, Sergeant ’Mamorapeli Zulu, said child sexual abuse cases were rising “rapidly”.

In some mountainous regions, forced and early child marriages remain major challenges and some parents or guardians encourage it for personal gain, she said.

She said most families encouraged their daughters to marry early out of poverty.

“They believe letting their children marry an old, rich man can help them survive,” said Zulu.

Zulu said the ministry uses available laws to address harmful practices that affect children.

“Not amending the Child Protection and Welfare Act makes our job difficult to address this issue in particular,” Zulu said. “Persistent advocacy is vital.”

The Lesotho Violence Against Children Survey 2018 shows that at least one in 10 girls were illegally married before the age of 18, compared to less than one percent for boys.

It states that 43 percent of all female children under the age of 18 have experienced sexual, physical and emotional violence in Lesotho.

The UNFPA Programme Officer for Adolescents and Youths, ’Maseretse Ratia, said the consequences of having a child at a young age are devastating.

They include pregnancy complications that could lead to maternal mortality as their bodies are not ready to reproduce.

The 2016 Census report shows that maternal mortality is high in Lesotho with 618 deaths per 100 000 live births.

Ratia said other negative health outcomes associated with adolescent pregnancy include anemia, malaria, sexually transmitted infections (including HIV), post-partum hemorrhage, obstetric fistula, and mental disorders such as depression.

The adolescent birth rate in Lesotho is reported to be high at 94 per 1 000 girls aged 15-19, according to the UNFPA’s 2003-2018 study.

Motlatsi Taaka, the World Vision Advocacy and Community Development Coordinator, says the organisation joined a global campaign of ending violence against children and they chose child marriage five years ago.

The campaign, through which the organisation sensitises children, parents and even service providers about the negative impact of child marriage, ends next year.

“We can’t succeed in ending child marriage if it is not made illegal,” Taaka said.

“We have been campaigning for so many years to regulate child marriages but still it has not happened,” he said.

Taaka said in Mokotjomela, Quthing, children aged between 14 and 16 years are being married at an alarming rate.

In a bid to end this, the organisation has partnered with church leaders to join the fight and has also developed models promoting positive parenting and empowering children.

He said herd boys, moneyed Zama-zamas coming from South African disused gold mines and taxi drivers are largely responsible for the high rate of child marriages.

“The values and morals have deteriorated.”

’Mapule Motsopa

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Mahao, PS in big fight

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PRIME Minister Sam Matekane this week summoned the Basotho Action Party (BAP) executive committee in a bid to defuse simmering tensions within the party.
This comes amid fears that Professor Nqosa Mahao’s fallout with his principal secretary at the Ministry of Energy, Tankiso Phapano, could threaten the unity in the BAP and the government’s stability.

thepost can reveal that Mahao has hinted that he would resign if Matekane doesn’t fire or reassign Phapano.

But there are strong indications that Mahao doesn’t enjoy the backing of his executive committee and MPs in his fight with Phapano.

Inside sources this week told thepost that some members of the BAP’s executive committee and MPs are openly siding with Phapano and have been secretly lobbying Matekane to reshuffle Mahao from the Ministry of Energy to Sports.

A source said Mahao is aware of these manoeuvres, including a clandestine meeting in Maputsoe, and has said he would rather resign than be the subject of a humiliating reshuffle instigated by people he leads.

The source of the bad blood between Mahao and Phapano is not clear but it is understood that they have disagreed over tenders and the ministry’s direction.

The source said Matekane was first briefed of the running battles at the ministry some three weeks ago just as matters were coming to a head.

It is the second briefing which revealed a complete breakdown in the relationship that triggered Matekane’s meeting with the BAP’s executive committee and MPs on Monday.

Three people who were in that meeting said Matekane told the BAP officials to deal with the crisis before it affected the ministry and threatened the coalition government’s stability.

The BAP’s executive committee, including MPs and Mahao, then had a marathon meeting to discuss ways to make peace between Mahao and Phapano.

A source who was in that meeting said “it was clear to Mahao that the majority of the committee and the MPs were on Phapano’s side”.

“Mahao quickly realised that he did not have the backing of the majority and took a conciliatory approach. It was clear that the committee would rather have him resign than get Phapano removed from the ministry,” the source said.

“In the past Mahao had flatly refused to reconcile with Phapano because of seniority. But this time he appeared to be open to a meeting to discuss reconciliation.”

Both Mahao and Phapano told thepost last night that their relationship was still cordial. ‘“We are still in good books with Phapano until further notice,” Mahao said.

“However, we cannot predict the future.”

Mahao denied ever discussing Phapano’s dismissal or transfer with Matekane.

Phapano also insisted that he was working well with Mahao.

“We are still on good terms,” Phapano said, adding that the allegation that they were fighting was “baseless”.

The fallout between Mahao and Phapano has been quick and spectacular.

The two had been almost inseparable months before Mahao agreed to join the coalition government.

Phapano would use his car to drive Mahao around. They would attend party meetings together. Some party insiders saw Phapano as Mahao’s right-hand man and adviser.

Mahao allegedly strongly pushed for Phapano to be appointed as his principal secretary when he became energy minister.

But sources said Mahao started having second thoughts days after recommending Phapano and tried to get his appointment reversed but it was too late.

A source says within weeks Mahao was telling cabinet colleagues that Phapano had captured the ministry and he was unable to function as the minister.

“He started pushing to oust Phapano within days because they were already clashing. It’s been war from the first days,” said the source.

Staff Reporter

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How chicken import ban hit vendors

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MALESHOANE Pakela used to work at small backyard chicken farms where she was paid with chicken heads, necks, legs, and offals that she would roast and sell to factory workers at the Thetsane Industrial Area.

Her job was to clean and pack chicken.
The profit wasn’t much but just enough for the 37-year-old widow to feed and keep her four children in school.

“It also covered her monthly rental of M150 for a room in Ha-Tsolo Sekoting.

Her life was however shattered last October when the government imposed a ban on chicken imports from South Africa following an outbreak of bird flu.
Without day-old chicks the farms quickly shut down, cutting Pakela’s supply of heads, necks, legs, and offals.
Within a few days, her family was starving.

Pakela had been struggling even for months before the ban. The closure of the factories and retrenchments of thousands of workers has severely hit her sales. She was behind on her rent and could barely feed her children.

The partial lifting of the chicken ban has not helped Pakela because her former employers still cannot import day-old chicks or live birds.
Pakela and a family were kicked out of their rented room in November when their arrears were about M1 000.
She has found another room nearby.

A ‘Good Samaritan’ has allowed her to use a room for free until she can afford the rent. But Pakela says she still feels obliged to pay something because she understands that things are hard for everyone.

“Here the rent is still M150 but the landlord accepts every amount that I give her,” Pakela says.
There are days when her children go to bed hungry.

“I have told them (children) that if I have nothing they should accept (the status).”

She now survives on handouts from neighbours and other well-wishers. Pakela’s poverty is apparent.

Barefoot and holding her small child in a seshoeshoe dress, Pakela says her two children usually go to school without eating.
The other child has dropped out of school because she doesn’t have shoes.

’Mako Lepolesa, 44, who has been running a chesanyama (meat grill) at the Maseru West Industrial Estate since 2018. The father of three says his clients are mainly taxi drivers and factory workers.

Chicken was her main product until last October when the ban was imposed. It wasn’t long before his business started wobbling.

“I thought it would be just a short-lived problem (chicken import ban) but it passed on this year,” he says, adding that it might take months for his business to recover.
Moshe Ramashamole, 42, who also owns a chesanyama in the Maseru West Industrial Estate, tried to remain in business by sourcing chicken from local farmers.

It was a stopgap measure that however lasted a few weeks because the farmers also ran out of stock. He resorted to bad chicken but they were double the price of a full chicken before the ban.
Yet Ramashamole thought he could make it work by increasing the price of his plate from M35 to M55. The customers however resisted the new price and Ramashamole had to take the losses.

The poultry ban did not affect street vendors like Pakela alone.
Former Minister of Communications, Khotso Letsatsi, is one of those poultry farmers struggling following the chicken ban.

He ventured into poultry in January last year. It was an audacious venture that included a M100 000 investment in a shelter and other equipment.
He started with a batch of 300 chicks and had reached 1 000 by the time the ban was imposed.

“The business was lucrative,” Letsatsi says.

“I had to employ two people permanently to assist me on a full-time basis,” he says.

When it was time to slaughter the chickens, Letsatsi says he had to employ seven casual labourers.
Since the ban was imposed he had released all his workers.

“I do not know where they are now. Maybe they are starving,” he says of the workers he released.

Letsatsi doesn’t know how he will revive his business.
The Director of Marketing in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MAFS), Lekhooe Makhate, says the ban has been devastating to farmers and businesses.

“Some big businesses are going to declare less tax to the government because there was no business,” Makhate says.

He says Lesotho spends M2.1 billion on the importation of chicken and its products from South Africa every year.
But that amount usually soars to M4 billion depending on the market forces of demand and supply.

Makhate says the M2.1 billion goes to South Africa where the chicken and its products are imported.

At the height of the scarcity of chickens in the country, Makhate says people were supposed to make initiatives to travel to villages to search for chickens.

“There is not enough production of chickens in the country,” he says.
“Economically speaking we rely on South Africa. We have to be self-reliant.”

Majara Molupe

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Letseng fends off threat to sue

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LETŠENG Diamond says it is under no obligation to advertise jobs for Basotho to provide certain services “where it has the capacity to undertake the same services”.
Letšeng Diamond boss, Motooane Thinyane, was responding to a threat to sue by a little-known political party called Yearn for Economic Sustainability (YES).

Matekane’s company, the Matekane Mining Investment Company (MMIC), had been providing blasting, haulage and drilling services at Letšeng mine since 2005.
The deal with the MMIC was terminated in December last year with the mining company saying it was improper because Matekane had now become a politician.

Letšeng Diamonds announced that it had reached an agreement with the MMIC to acquire its mining equipment at the mine and offered employment to its current employees in line with operational requirements.

“This will enable Letšeng to continue with its mining activities,” the company said in its statement.

This infuriated opposition parties that argued that the mine should have called interested Basotho companies to bid for the contract, saying it is provided for in the Minerals Act of 2005.

The leader of Yearn for Economic Sustainability (YES), Molefi Ntšonyana, wrote the mine last week threatening to sue for allegedly failing to follow section 11 of the Act.
Ntšonyana argued that the Act “does not grant the Letšeng Diamond 100 percent to mine with its good own equipment” but it should engage Basotho companies like it did with the MMIC.

Ntšonyana said Letšeng Diamond and the MMIC made the agreement to acquire the MMIC equipment so that the mine could continue with its mining activities “without any advertisement to seek qualified Basotho to provide such services”.

Ntšonyana said the agreement unilaterally denied Basotho a chance to tender for such services and ignored the fact that the government of Lesotho on behalf of Basotho own 30 percent in the Letšeng Diamond.

“It is advisable to reconsider your decision,” Ntšonyana said, adding that they would also write to the mining board requesting the resolution they made regarding this matter of insourcing mining activities.

He said the company should adhere to section 11 of the Mines and Minerals Act of 2005 and within 14 working days the matter should be reconsidered, “failing which we will have no choice but to drag the company to the courts of law”.

In his response, Thinyane said Ntšonyana must “revisit the section in question in full for its correct interpretation”.

“Letšeng Diamond is under no obligation to advertise to seek qualified Basotho to provide services where it is willing and has the capacity to undertake the same services,” Thinyane said.

He said the decision relating to the agreement referred to has been through the necessary governance structures and is therefore procedural.
Thinyane said Letšeng is a corporate citizen that is fully compliant with the laws of Lesotho.

Majara Molupe

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