Johannesburg — THE Southern African Development Community (SADC) is working on a Model Law on Child Marriage, which seeks to prevent, prohibit and respond to all forms of the vice which is prevalent in Tanzania and other member countries of the regional grouping.
Although child marriage rates in Tanzania have decreased in recent years, they remain unacceptably high, Human Rights Watch says in its recent report. Four in 10 Tanzanian women are married before turning 18, according to government statistics.
As the problem is known to be rife throughout the region, a group of experts representing key institutions working on policy and legal issues related to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), children's rights, women's rights and HIV and AIDS, met in Johannesburg, South Africa, recently to review the draft model law to check the tendency.
The meeting, held on August 10 and 11, was the first in a series planned to enable stakeholders comment on the SADC Model Law on Child Marriage, whose development the SADC Parliamentary Forum is spearheading.
During the meeting, the approximately 10 experts pored over the draft model law as well as a related position paper and made extensive comments and recommendations which will be incorporated.
The aim is to ensure that once the SADC Model Law on Child Marriage has been fully developed, it can be used to effectively prohibit, prevent and respond to all forms of child marriage, which currently affects millions of girls in Southern Africa and beyond. After the meeting, the experts were upbeat.
Professor Ann Skelton, director of the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, said the meeting was necessary to remove grey areas, ensure that the proposed model law was consistent with regional and international instruments related to child marriage, and to make it serve the interests of the children it seeks to protect.
"I thought the meeting grappled with some tough questions, the central one being where to find the fine balancing line between protecting girls (which seems to require an inflexible approach) and recognising their growing autonomy and right to develop relationships (which requires a flexible approach)," Skelton said in an interview.
She stressed that this tension was not uniquely found in the child marriage question alone, but was very acute in the debate. "I am very happy that the expert group was clear about not criminalising children.
It also appreciated the care taken to distinguish between pre-existing marriages (which it is proposed will be voidable at the instance of a party) and those that may occur after the prohibition of marriage law is passed (which will be automatically void)," she added.
Mrs Ronaldah Lerato Karabo Ozah, an attorney who also works at the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, said she was grateful to have been part of experts who had the opportunity to input on a document that aimed at protecting girl children and towards the realisation of the rights to which they were entitled.
"I am mindful of the fact that the law, on its own, will not eradicate child marriage, but it will remind us all of our obligations to protect girl children, and this is the responsibility of all -- communities, lawyers as well as religious and traditional leaders," she said.
Dr Asha Mohamud, UNFPA East and Southern Africa Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy Advisor with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is one of the institutions supporting SADC PF in the development of the model law, sounded excited and optimistic.