Author: Mamoletsane Khati, June 11 2015 - African children suffer from neglect, deprivation, poor nutrition, poor access to health services, violence and other harmful social and cultural practices that affect children’s wellbeing and expose them to discriminative vices like child marriages. 

 Whether it happens to a girl or a boy, child marriage violates children’s rights. It undermines almost all the foundational principles of child rights, namely: non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, participation and the child’s best interests. It also inflicts discrimination resulting in children being deprived of basic rights to health, education, development and equality.

 Different stakeholders have implemented numerous interventions to address child marriages, taking a multi-sectorial and multifaceted approach. For Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf), these interventions include empowering the media through training of journalists, media fellowships for investigative reporting, and producing media briefs to foster informed coverage of the subject. Through these interventions, PSAf envisages increased awareness on the impact of child marriages, which can help mobilise support to reduce children’s vulnerabilities.

 Although different interventions have been developed to tackle child marriages, challenges remain, resulting in lack of effective implementation.  One such challenge facing most African countries is on the definition of who the child is.  Most countries in southern Africa have dualist legal systems whereby ratification of international and regional legal obligations does not automatically become part of the domestic laws without domestication. 

 While international and regional treaties like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Children’s Charter, among others, define a child as anyone under the age of 18, some domestic laws state otherwise.  For example, in Zambia, the Penal Code Chapter 87 of the Laws of Zambia mentions that a 15-year-old may be liable for the crime of defilement thus exposing a child to adult criminal prosecution before the general age of majority which is 18 years. There is need therefore for domestication of the international and regional treaties which most of our countries are party to, to ensure compliance to child rights protection.

 Most of these countries also use statutory and customary laws to form the domestic legislation.  This application of the statutory law and the customary law gives rise to difficulties in ending child marriages. For Example, the Marriage Act in Malawi, states that the legal age for marriage is 21 years of age, but allows for marriage below this age with the consent of an adult. Mozambique uses the monist legal systems whereby ratified international and regional treaties automatically become part of domestic law. While Mozambican law currently prohibits marriage of girls aged below 16, it allows such marriage only with parental consent for girls between 16 and 18.

 Customary or religious marriages usually do not specify the age of marriage, as long as the parents provide consent for the marriage. These types of marriages provide a different definition of a child which is usually based on culture.  The customary view defines a child as someone who has not reached puberty.  By the time a child reaches puberty and can be able to carry out adulthood activities, they are exposed to social and cultural factors including initiation ceremonies which are said to prepare them for adulthood.  However, these fuel child marriages as some children reach puberty as early as 12 or 14 years of age. It is therefore vital to harmonise the statutory and customary laws on marriage to address this mismatch.

 Like Nelson Mandela once said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children”.  As we celebrate the Day of the African Child on June 16, under the theme: “25 Years after the Adoption of the African Children’s Charter: Accelerating our Collective Efforts to End Child Marriage in Africa”, we all need to think about how we treat children. Governments should look into strategies that best protect children against child marriages. These can include collaborating with different stakeholders affected by and working to end child marriage such as the media, traditional and religious leaders, communities, and children.

 Mamoletsane Khati is PSAf Regional Programme Manager for Health and Development. For feedback, email This article was first published in the Zambia Daily Mail