– Venicia Shanjenka
Namibia, like many African countries, is plagued by the coercive practice of child marriage. The matter remains a concern because of weak efforts from public servants and civil society to address outdated practices.
Children are deprived of their right to education, health, and safety as a result of forced marriages.
Forced marriage is when an adult or traditional elder coerces a child into entering a marriage and, in most cases, this is done to add to the financial security of the child and their family or to conceal shame in the event of teenage pregnancy.
In its nature, forced marriage is a violation of a host of fundamental rights as it occurs when one or more of the involved parties are married off without their consent or against their will. Children are not able to consent to sex.
It is a practice that affects both girls and boys, however, its effects disproportionately impact the lives of young girls.
They face many more physical and mental challenges such as pregnancy, household labour, expectations to drop out of school at a very early age and a myriad of other expectations which alter the course of their lives.
In October 2020 the Young Feminists Movement (Y-Fem) engaged several social workers on the need to eradicate this practice.
It was brought to the organisation’s attention that there is a hesitancy to allow people who aim to talk to victims about this practice to enter villages. They are refused entry by leaders of the homestead or the victim’s family.
It was also brought to the organization’s attention that no support has been given to these groups on how they can proceed, be that by police or ministerial servants. Thus they have indicated that they do not know how to intervene.
Traditional leaders have been engaged regarding the abolition of the practice. While some do agree, the majority of these leaders view it as disrespectful to challenge traditional practices.
What needs to also be noted is that Namibia has an international obligation to completely eradicate the practice as the country is a signatory to several treaties and agreements that aim to decrease and eventually eradicate forced marriage.
This includes the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights.
In the Namibian context, forced marriage is largely perpetuated by cultural norms, religion, and gender inequality.
This practice occurs more frequently than we would like to think. Reports on data collected from the San community by the Women Leadership Centre notes that San women have asked for intervention strategies, as no one has been assisting them address the fact that they are being taken from schools to live with their forced groom and are never allowed to return to school.
Cultural practices such as eengoma, olufuko, and sikenge serve as preparatory mechanisms for child marriage as they groom the girl-child for marriage.
The Child Care and Protection Act strictly forbids child marriage by making it a crime to hand a child over in marriage or engagement if the child is below age 18. This prohibition applies to civil, customary and religious marriages.
For persons under the age of 21, a parent or guardian needs to provide content in order to allow the marriage.
The concern, currently, is the possibility of getting permission from the minister of home affairs to allow marriage below the age of 18.
This gap in the legislation of the country has resulted in many children being married off as young as two-years-old, as reported by The Namibian in January 2021.
If a child consents to the marriage, it becomes legal; but in all cases, children are being pressured by elders & parents – people whom they expect to always act in their best interest – leaving the child with no choice but to agree to the forced marriage. We need to let our communities at large understand that children cannot consent to sexual & marital relationships.
Forced marriage is a coercive act that infringes on the dignity of the victim and strips them of their bodily autonomy & integrity.
In most cases, it is young girls that are married off to older men. Traditional communities believe that child marriage is a way of uplifting the life of a young girl.
There are often justifications pandered to push the notion that the marriage provides economical safety to the girls. “She will be taken care of,” they might say.
African elders also believe that marrying off a young girl reduces her chances of experiencing sexual violence.
Families often lack insight and understanding of the negative and harmful effects of child marriage, including pregnancy at such a young age. This can lead to many complications, as a young girl’s body may not be ready for childbirth at this point.
Thus, there is a need to challenge & eradicate the current harmful gendered and sexist views that uphold this harmful practice which infringes on the dignity of marginalized children.
There is a need for society to address key sexual and reproductive health rights drivers that also happen to be huge risk factors that lead to forced marriage of children; gender inequality, poverty, teenage pregnancy, lack of education, lack of BAI knowledge as some elders force children into marriage with the hope of protecting them from these factors. However, this only results in more damage to the young child’s life.
The lived experience of child brides and grooms in this country is unknown.
In March 2019 it was reported by the then Ministry of Gender & Child Welfare in the National Plan of Action 2019-2024, that N$ 31 million was allocated to women & peace, safety & security. However, to date, zero commitments have been made to adopt an implementation strategy that will address the need to eradicate the practice and rehabilitate victims of this violent act.
As an organisation, Y-Fem demands transparency with how these funds are being utilised to address and rehabilitate acts of violence against women and children.
The Namibian government is failing to prioritize tackling child marriage on the political agenda and is it also failing to coordinate effective responses across the education, health, nutrition, protection, economic and justice sectors.
If we do not act now, we risk a decline in national resources for economic growth and development as child marriage affects sustainable development goals.
Y-Fem urges the Namibian government, specifically the Office of the President, Office of the First Lady, the Ministry of Health and Social Services, the Ministry of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare and the Ministry of Justice to stand with us and uplift the livelihood of the Namibian child by strengthening legislation, adopting sustainable rehabilitative systems for victims and uplifting the education & health sectors.
To date there is no national database of underage spouses married under customary marriage, and no database of reported forced marriages.
The government does not have a strict guideline on dealing with underage spouses/parents, pregnant children who visit hospitals for checkups, and these individuals are rarely counselled or assessed as being possible victims of abuse. Relevant authorities are not informed of cases. Perpetrators of teenage pregnancy and forced marriage are never held accountable.
The state needs to develop responsive services that can assist in advancing the lives of children.