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SADC Model Law: one step closer to ending child marriage in Southern Africa

Participants at the civil society consultation about the SADC Model Law on child marriage, in Johannesburg, South Africa. | Photo credit: UNFPA ESARO

Civil society and young people are paving the way for change across Southern Africa.

In Zimbabwe, two young girls successfully led a legal campaign to recognise 18 as the minimum age of marriage. In Malawi, youth petitioned the Government to remove a legal provision which grants parents the right to marry off their daughters at the age of 15. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, civil society urged the Ministry of Gender to launch the African Union campaign to end child marriage.

These are only a few examples of community-driven initiatives that deserve wider support and recognition in a region where 26% of girls are married before their 18th birthday. Child marriage rates can be as high as 50% in Malawi and as low as 6% in Swaziland.

Just as disparate are the laws around marriage, with some countries setting 18 as the minimum age while others allow children as young as 14 to marry. Many countries provide exceptions to the minimum age of marriage, upon parental consent or authorisation of the court, while other exceptions allow customary or religious laws to set lower ages of marriage.

Exceptions and inconsistencies undermine the efficacy of the law. Governments across Southern Africa urgently need to harmonise policies and legislations to bring an end to child marriage. It is my hope that the Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage and Protecting Children Already in Marriage, adopted on 3 June, is a step in the right direction.

A Model Law to end child marriage in Southern Africa

Developed by the Southern African Development Community-Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF), the Model Law has the potential to shape how the region addresses child marriage.

Based on the latest evidence, the Model Law sets a consistent standard for how legislation should deal with child marriage and protect children already in marriage. It will be a powerful tool for countries that are developing, reviewing or harmonising their laws related to child marriage and its impact.

Civil society was able to provide inputs into the Model Law at a consultation held by Girls Not Brides, in collaboration with UNFPA, the Southern African Litigation Centre and Plan International earlier in March.

What does civil society expect from this new model law?

That it becomes binding for Member States to address legislative loopholes; that it aligns national legislations with global human rights instruments[1]; and that it not only prevents child marriage but also offers child brides and their families better social and economic opportunities.

However, ending child marriage is not only about setting a minimum age of marriage and ensuring it is explicitly prohibited by the law.

It is also about ensuring that the women and girls directly affected by child marriage are both protected and consulted. It is about providing adequate training to the judiciary responsible for implementing the law. Finally, it is about conducting in-depth research in remote areas that often fall through the cracks of data collection.

Bringing the Model Law to life

One major recommendation from civil society was to involve all actors from implementation through to the monitoring and evaluation, using robust social accountability systems such as simple scorecards that communities can use to rank the quality of the services.

Another recommendation that came out strongly is the need to bring this lengthy and technical document to the communities. Without awareness raising around the purpose of the Model Law, local communities will simply not be able to own nor use the legislation. This is why participants committed to disseminating the Model Law through different means that are most suited to their own context (education systems, role plays, radio, etc.).

No single strategy will end child marriage

Changing behaviours that are rooted in traditions takes time. Changing practices that are seen as coping mechanisms to protect girls and lift families out of poverty calls for context-specific solutions.

Laws alone will not end child marriage in an entire region. They must be accompanied by integrated interventions in education, health and social protection, as well as awareness raising activities in communities.

If this model brings lasting change in the lives of girls and their families, it is not only the SADC region that will benefit from it, but the continent at large.

[1] Such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child ratified by all SADC member states