Day of the African Child: Let's remove harmful practices, end child marriages

*By Edward Kallon

As Zimbabwe and the continent mark the Day of the African Child on 16 June, I pay tribute to the recent Zimbabwe's constitutional court ruling that increased the legal age of sexual consent from 16 to 18 years old.

The day of the African child is being commemorated under the theme Eliminating Harmful Practices Affecting Children: Progress on Policy and Practice since 2013.

On this important day, I want to shine a light on the issue of child marriage as a global problem that cuts across countries, cultures, and religions.

Unless governments, society and development partners redouble efforts and act with the sense of urgency, according to some estimates 150 million more girls will be married by 2030.

The recent Constitutional Court's ruling and the High-Level Political Compact to end violence against women and girls launched end of last year by His Excellency President Emmerson Mnangagwa under the joint UN-EU Spotlight Initiative are examples of progress on policy and practice in Zimbabwe.

Child marriage compromises girls' development and often results in early pregnancy and social isolation. The right to 'free and full' consent to a marriage is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - with the recognition that consent cannot be 'free and full' when one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner.

The practice of child marriage further perpetuates the unrelenting cycle of gender inequality and often increases their risk of violence. Girls who are married young are at risk of rape and physical violence as they lack power in relation to their husbands and in-laws.

Here in Zimbabwe, child marriages, according to the domestic violence bill, are considered a form of gender-based violence.

Girls in Zimbabwe are married early. By age 19, when most children are expected to be starting their university or tertiary education, over half of the girls in the country are already in marriage.

This reduces their chances of realizing their full potential in life as well as exposing them to other vulnerabilities like sexual and gender-based violence and poverty.

The prevailing socio-economic challenges, and the negative impact of COVID-19 pandemic on lives and livelihoods has exposed further existing vulnerabilities and caused further deepening inequalities, particularly gender inequality and spiking sexual and gender-based violence.

We know the enormity of the challenge of child marriages. So let us take a hard look at what needs to change and what we are doing to end this scourge.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) embody a roadmap for progress that is sustainable and leaves no one behind.

Achieving gender equality and women's empowerment is integral to each of the 17 goals. Only by ensuring the rights of women and girls across all the goals will we get to justice and inclusion, economies that work for all, and sustaining our shared environment now and for future generations.

The UN System in Zimbabwe has been at the forefront of efforts to end violence against women and girls through supporting the national strategy which focuses on prevention, protection and provision of services as well as addressing social norms that perpetuate such violence.

The work of the UN family and its partners reflects the breadth and depth of the challenges faced by girls and this includes interventions in education, training and skills, child protection, HIV and AIDS, food security, among many others.

The UN is working on sexual and reproductive health and rights, reaching girls in urban, peri-urban, and rural areas with critical information on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

To address the HIV challenge which disproportionately affects girls and young women, the UN has been supporting major HIV prevention programmes for adolescent girls and young women.

Furthermore, the UN is working on a range of interventions aimed at preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence through the joint EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls, with over US$ 30 million financial support from the European Union.

Programmes under the Spotlight Initiative include, strengthening capacity of state and non-state actors of the Justice Law and Order Sector to implement programmes and advocacy strategies to address sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices.

In addition, the UN is providing support law makers to accelerate legal and policy reform in the fields of child justice, child protection, marriage, cybercrime, and criminal justice including enhancing forensic laboratories.

I believe, this support will ensure that violence, abuse, and neglect of girls is quickly identified, responded to, investigated, and prosecuted through strong national systems that are child friendly and cater to the specific vulnerabilities of girls.

On the Day of the African Child, the UN Development System in Zimbabwe renews its commitment to support and amplify the demands and voices of girls in the country to:

First, live free from violence, harmful practices including child marriages, and HIV and AIDS.  This requires an integrated approach where legislation is followed by strict and swift enforcement of the law.

Second, stay in schools, finish their school and be given opportunities to learn new skills towards the futures they choose. This requires ensuring equal access to quality education and skills development. I cannot overemphasize on the importance of having better education opportunities for girls especially in secondary and tertiary education to enhance the wellbeing and better future economic opportunities for girls. Poverty has major correlation with child abuse and exploitation, including child and early marriages. Girls in poorest communities are six times more likely to experience child marriage than their counterparts in higher wealth quintiles.

Third, mobilize a generation of activists accelerating social change. Ending child marriage in Zimbabwe and protecting girls against the negative consequences of early marriage needs more than legislation, policies, and project design. It needs behavioral and mindset change in the communities. I call on community leaders and influential elderly men and women, as well as boys and girls to advocate in their communities to end child marriages. Let us ensure zero tolerance to child marriages.

Fourth, scaling up services and information about the services such as the "one stop center" initiative which provides essential and quality medical and psychosocial services to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices. It is known that a survivor of sexual and gender-based violence requires many different types of services: police services, health care, legal service, and psychosocial support.

On the day of the African Child, the UN Development System in Zimbabwe stands ready to double efforts in support of national and local initiatives to remove harmful practices, end child marriages and violence against women and girls -- leaving no one behind. Leave no one behind means leave no girl and woman behind.

*Edward Kallon is the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Zimbabwe