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Sex education and the SADC Model Law: the key to ending child marriage in Zimbabwe?

School girls in Honda Valley, Zimbabwe. | Photo credit: Charity Chiutsi | IMs Bildarkiv

In Zimbabwe, most child marriages take place after a girl becomes pregnant, but this could be avoided by teaching girls about sex and their rights. This is the message we heard from adolescent girls when we asked them what should be included in a model law to prevent child marriage and support married girls in Southern Africa.

At the Girls’ Legacy, we work hard to bring the needs of girls to the attention of policy-makers. With one in three girls in Zimbabwe married before 18, child marriage is of course a major focus. We have set up 29 clubs across the country where girls can talk about issues that affect them daily – such as sex, sexuality, relationships and marriage – issues that are almost never discussed at school.

Lack of sexual education driving child marriage

With policy-makers across Southern Africa drafting a ground-breaking law on child marriage, we wanted to make sure they understood the challenges that girls face.

So we asked the girls in our clubs which major challenges they wanted the law to tackle. They told us three things:

  1. Social and cultural norms encourage girls to engage in sexual activity at a very young age. They are also pressured to view marriage, not education or careers, as a goal.
  2. Girls get pregnant because there is no comprehensive education around sex and sexuality at school. They don’t know where to find information or services or how to protect themselves from getting pregnant.
  3. Married girls want to go back to school, but once they get pregnant, it is very difficult for them to do so.

Sex education is at the heart of the problem – but it’s also the solution. And this new law could help bring about change the girls desperately want and need. The Model Law includes provisions for comprehensive sex education, thus opening doors that have been culturally closed for a long time.

Making the most of the SADC Model Law

Countries will now look at how the SADC Model Law, which makes it illegal for girls under 18 to be married, can work at the national level. At the Girls’ Legacy, we are going to make the most of this opportunity.

We want sexual and reproductive health education to be introduced in Zimbabwe’s education strategy. At the end of the month, we are meeting with legislators to discuss domesticating the law and making sure girls’ concerns are addressed.

We will also use the Model Law to convince service providers to improve delivery of sexual and reproductive health information and services. At the moment, only people above the age of 16 have access to family planning in Zimbabwe. But girls and child brides of all ages need it.

At the community level, the SADC Model Law could have a huge impact too, enabling us to work more closely with traditional leaders to prevent child marriage. We already share success stories of what’s working elsewhere.

When we told them about the chief from Malawi who has stopped hundreds of marriages, one headman said “I want to be a champion like her!” They now have a chance to champion this new Law. 

Working together for girls

Just because a policy talks about sex education and services, however, it does not mean girls know how to access them. We will continue to share information with girls and train them to become ambassadors on child marriage, so they can go to schools and reach girls who are not able to attend the clubs.

Civil society is always in survival mode, competing for funds to basically do the same work. The SADC Model Law gives us a platform to work together more closely, look at child marriage from different angles, and collaborate more smartly. If we come together, we will make the SADC Model Law a real success for girls in the region.