Lesotho to criminalise child marriages

FamCast News
a month ago

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‘Mantšali Phakoana

In a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, a law barring the practice could offer a ray hope for Lesotho.

If, passed, child marriages will become a crime in Lesotho, bringing an end to the harmful practice and giving victims a chance to pursue justice and reclaim their future.

Child marriage is defined as a formal marriage or informal union that takes place before the age of 18. In many contexts, the practice has been shown to have profound physical, intellectual, psychological, and emotional impacts, especially for girls.

It is practised in Lesotho under certain circumstances, with parental consent and traditional practices allowing girls as young as 12 years to be married off.

A United Nations 2019 report revealed that one out of five girls in Lesotho are married before they turn 18 years old. This alarming trend among young girls prompted the government to amend the Child Protection and Welfare Bill (Amendment), 2023.

If passed, the amended Bill would criminalise this practice and set the legal marriage age at 18 for both girls and boys. Those who engage in the practice would face criminal penalties including fines and jail time.

The Bill was presented before the National Assembly on May 15 2024 by the minister of gender, youth, sports, arts, culture and social development, Lesaoana Pitso.

The Bill is meant to domesticate the 1993 Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) model law on eradicating child marriage and protecting children already in marriage.

Presenting the Bill, Pitso said its sole purpose was to make provision for the promotion and protection of the rights, general wellbeing and social development of children, the protection and care of children as well as the establishment of structures to provide care, support and protection of children.

He noted that the Bill seeks to address, remove and prohibit customary practices that are harmful to children such as child marriage, child labour and inheritance discrimination against children born out of wedlock.

“In addition, the Bill provides and regulates for licencing and registration of adoption agencies and the places of safety in an effort to encourage alternative care under the Principle of Family Preservation, Survival and Development.

“Lastly, the Bill has financial implications for monitoring and supervision of residential care facilities and revenue generation from registration of adoption agencies and licensing of residential care facilities,” Pitso said.

He further indicated that the government intends to harmonise all laws in line with the International Gender Equality Protocols and Conventions to prevent gender-based violence and protect women, girls and children.

In upholding the right to Sexual and Reproductive Rights Care even in humanitarian and fragile context, Lesotho commits to operationalise the Emergency and Vulnerability Preparedness Plan in light of the recurring El Ninos in the country, particularly in recent years because of climate change.

The Bill was scrutinised by the parliamentary portfolio committee on the social cluster, which recommended that it be adopted by the House.

Community leaders have expressed support for the law, arguing that it would protect girls from the physical, emotional and financial hardships that accompany child marriage.

They believe the law would align Lesotho with international standards and norms regarding human rights and gender equality.

While the law has been met with support from some members of the community, and their leaders who welcomed the child marriage bill, others believe there would be a need for more education on the Bill, also citing cultural and religious traditions that condone child marriage.

The area chief of Ha Mahloane in Leribe, Mohapeloa Molapo, says the law will create a safer and more equitable society for girls.

“Victims of child marriage will be able to seek justice through the legal system, potentially leading to greater protection and support for them and their families.

“The law could also help to break down societal and cultural norms that condone child marriage, providing an alternative path for girls who wish to pursue education and other opportunities.

“The government and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) should embark on more campaigns to educate the public about this law, especially in the highlands, because I know there are still traditional leaders who think the law would undermine their authority and disrupt social cohesion,” Chief Molapo said.

For their part, parents are hopeful that the law will bring positive change in ensuring that their daughters can pursue their education and build brighter future for themselves.

A parent with three teenage girls, Motsatsi Lebaka of Mathokoane, in Maseru says parents are entrusted with ensuring children do not become victims of early marriage

“We are delighted that after relentless campaigning from NGOs, the government has listened to calls to end child marriage by criminalising it.

“This is a huge step in the right direction. It is high time people understood that child marriage is a crime that deserves punishment. When girls are forced to drop out of school because they get married, often well before their 18th birthday and without a choice, it perpetuates a lifetime of poverty and the denial of girls’ rights and ability to fulfil their potential.

“Once this law is passed in parliament, it would ensure maximum safeguards against all forms of child marriage and sends out the strongest possible message that child marriage is not accepted or tolerated at all,” Lebaka added.

Her Majesty Queen ‘Masenate Mohato Seeiso, a tireless advocate on children’s rights, recently exhorted national and community leaders to take action in ending child marriages in the country.

Queen ‘Masenate also encouraged everyone to stand up to end child marriages which undermine the rights of girls who have to suffer physical emotional and mental scars as a result of early marriage.

“Let us all protect children against all forms of abuse, including early child marriage and ensure that legal action is taken against perpetrators of early marriage. We all have a responsibility to ensure that laws protecting children are implemented,” she said.

UNICEF’s 2021 case study on delaying adolescent pregnancy and child marriage in the world states that in 2020 the total number of girls married before the age of 18 remained at approximately 12 million per year.

According to the study, progress must be substantially accelerated to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 of ending child marriage by 2030.

In Lesotho, nearly one in five girls marries before the age of 18. As with unintended adolescent pregnancy, rates of marriage are higher among girls in rural areas, with 24.9 percent opposed to 13.8 percent in urban areas, and among those who are the poorest and have the lowest levels of schooling.

The study further indicates that low rates of birth registration across the country suggest that these figures are underestimates of the actual numbers of child marriages. “Although marriage is often pursued as a means of mitigating the financial, social and other difficulties that girls and families face, it nevertheless poses serious threats to their development and wellbeing,” the study observed.

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