BENEDICT TEMBO, Johannesburg
THE girl-child is now the focus of international attention as the world rolls its collective sleeves to curb child marriage.
This renewed interest arises from the fact that child marriage has the propensity to violate the rights of children and their ability to access and enjoy Sexual and Reproduction Health and Rights (SRHR).
Regionally, the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum, which brings together 14 national parliaments – through its Sexual Reproductive Health Rights, HIV and AIDS Governance (SRHR, H and AG) programme, is implementing a four-year project to strengthen the capacity of member parliaments to respond to SRHR, H and AG issues.
Funded by the Swedish government, the project aims to build the capacity of SADC female parliamentarians to support initiatives to promote SRHR, H and AG responses.
Fortunately, Zambia is among the seven countries – Angola, Lesotho, Mauritius, Seychelles, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe â€“ where the pilot project is being implemented with a view to replicating its successes in other SADC countries.
Additionally, the forum has begun the process of developing a SADC Model Law on Child Marriage.
SADC Parliamentary Forum secretary general Esau Chiviya said hundreds of women die from causes related to childbirth and pregnancy in the region.
Dr Chiviya said maternal mortality trends have not shown substantial decrease during the last two decades in most Southern African countries, owing to many factors, including inadequate services and lack of information.
At a recent SADC Parliamentary Forum workshop in Johannesburg themed Promotion of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and HIV and AIDS Governance Through the Media: A Rights Based Approach, Dr Chiviya said: â€œMaternal mortality rates are ranging from 124 in South Africa to 1,300 in Angola per 100,000 live births.â€
In a speech read for him by SADC Parliamentary Forum director of human resource and administration Yapoka Mungandi, Dr Chiviya said there are many unplanned pregnancies also contributing to these rates, amid concerns that millions of women lack access to effective contraception with the contraceptive prevalence still too low in most countries.
Contraceptive prevalence ranges from six percent in Angola to 75 percent in Mauritius. Only three countries in SADC (Mauritius, South Africa and Zimbabwe) have contraception prevalence rates above 50 percent.
In addition, Dr Chiviya said access to adequate care and protection against HIV and AIDS remains limited, with more than 50 percent of all new HIV infections occurring among young people aged between 15 and 24 years.
This is a huge concern as this generation is the future of southern Africa.
â€œThere are other sexual and reproductive health issues which also remain obstructive to the achievement of rights by men and women alike, including the huge numbers of girls and boys in child marriages, many of them forced to marry against their wish,â€ Dr Chiviya said.
He added that the SADC Parliamentary Forum is also aware of the millions of men and women who face abuse and violation of their reproductive rights and choices, including those in same-sex unions, most of whom may not be embraced in many Southern African countries.
â€œThe basic human right to control oneâ€™s fertility, to live and to be able to make individual sexuality choices, are all guaranteed implicitly by regional and international instruments which our governments are signatory to, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter and many others,â€ Dr Chiviya said.
Respected Botswana judge Key Dingake said the need to respect human rights should never be seen as the monopoly of the judiciary and the three arms of the State, emphasising the need to cooperate at all times to honour fundamental rights of all people.
Professor Dingake added that reproductive health deals with the most intimate and private aspect of peopleâ€™s lives, which can be difficult to write about and discuss publicly.
Although the SRHR, H and AG situation seems to have gone viral, there is a legal framework designed to eradicate child marriage.
The model law on eradicating child marriage and protecting children responds to a resolution of the 35th SADC Parliamentary Forum Assembly held in Mauritius in June 2014, which called for concerted efforts to eradicate child marriage in the region.
Eva Jhala, a Zambian legal consultant, said this decision was followed in February this year by a SADC Regional Parliamentary Dialogue on Child Marriage Law organised by the SADC Parliamentary Forum with the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA) and Plan Netherlands.
â€œThis forum discussed the benefits of a model legislation on child marriage and the possible contents of such a law,â€ Ms Jhala said.
She said the dialogue ended by adopting a Six Step Roadmap proposed towards the development of a model law that would contribute to ending child marriage.
â€œThe African Union (AU) Summit of Heads of State and Government also recently adopted a common position on the matter as amplified in the Ending Child Marriages Agreement. This agreement signals AUâ€™s commitment to empower women and girls and protect their human rights,â€ Ms Jhala said.
Under the agreement, Ms Jhala said, AU member states are to establish comprehensive action plans to end child marriages and to establish and enforce laws which set the minimum age for marriage at 18.
â€œThe AU will monitor progress towards this goal as part of its Agenda 2063 Strategy, which aims to ensure positive transformation within the next 50 years. The objective of the model law is to serve as a yardstick and an advocacy tool for legislators in the SADC region (and elsewhere),â€ she said.
The agreement also provides best practice language without loopholes which can be easily adopted by member states in their respective national laws dealing with the eradication of child marriage.
Ms Jhala said the model law will assist policy makers and legislative drafters to address all the relevant areas in need of legislative reform without usurping the authority of national legislatures to determine the content, extent, style and form of their national laws.
BENEDICT TEMBO, Johannesburg