Forced marriages: briefing by UNICEF

Social Development

07 September 2009
Chairperson: Ms Y Botha (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

UNICEF briefed the Committee on the practice of forced marriages and early marriages in the world. It was especially popular in Niger, Chad, Mali and Bangladesh. In South Africa the number of women married under the age of 18 was 8%. Poverty was seen to be the main cause for people marrying at a young age. Many parents traded their daughters for economic survival. Early marriages affected the child psychosocially and exposed the girl child to early pregnancy and childbirth and the denial of education. The statistics presented by UNICEF came from the Demographic Health Survey and from civil registers. Also raised was the phenomena of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) had to be addressed in South Africa, as the issue was no longer foreign to the country. This was due to the high number of immigrants and refugees from countries in which it was a common practice.

UNICEF noted that South Africa had been late in submitting it second and third periodic reports as required by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Parliament was encouraged to look into why South Africa was late in submitting reports.  

Members of the Committee were shocked by some of the international statistics. The Committee agreed that if they did not deal with the matter, the problem would get worse. There was a need to protect children from these practices. The Committee agreed that there was a need to forge a relationship with UNICEF in order to deal with the matters raised at the meeting.

Meeting report

Mr Stephen Blight, Chief: Child Protection, UNICEF South Africa, noted that UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) had been established in 1946 as mandated by the UN General Assembly. The main purpose of the organisation was to advocate for children’s rights, so that each child could reach its full potential.

Mr Blight’s presentation focused on child marriages, highlighting the degree to which to the practice was exercised in the world. The practice was not new to the world or unique only to Africa and other developing countries. It had been practised in Rome where bridal abduction was once common.

The country with the highest number of persons married before the age of 18 years old was Niger, followed by Chad, Mali and Bangladesh. According to UNICEF’s research, the number of women married by the age of 18 years was 8%.

Poverty was seen to be the main cause for people being made to marry at a young age. Many parents traded their daughters for economic survival. In India it was done to facilitate the passing on of wealth and property within the family. In Niger, where 77% of girls were married by 18, it was the fathers that made the decision. On the other hand, families in Albania encouraged their daughters to marry early before potential husbands migrated to cities in search for work.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) stipulated that only men and women of full age should be married. The African Charter for the Rights and Welfare of the Child states that “Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and effective action, including legislation shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years and make registration of all marriages in an official registry compulsory”.  South Africa had made progress in insuring that it fulfilled this mandate through the Customary Marriages Act. The Act set an appropriate minimum age and required registration of all marriages.

Early marriages harmed the child psychosocially and exposed the child to early pregnancy and childbirth and sometimes the denial of education.

To discourage the practice, Bangladesh had a secondary school scholarship for girls and India had grants to postpone marriage. A certain amount of money would be deposited into an account for every girl child born and for each year she did not get married, the money would accumulate interest.  The money would be given to them when they reach a certain age, on the condition that they were not married. 

Discussion
The Chairperson commented that the presentation by UNICEF showed that children’s rights were still being violated. In South Africa child marriages were mostly in the Eastern Cape.

Mr V Magagula (ANC) noted that there were certain countries that were not represented in the statistics on women who were married by the age of 18 years. He asked why certain countries were not represented in the statistics data presented by UNICEF.

Mr Magagula told the Committee and the UNICEF representative present at the meeting that there were some women from Europe who were in Africa engaging in sexual activities with young boys. He told the Committee that he got that information in the media.

Mr Stephen Blight, UNICEF, agreed that there were indeed adults who preyed on young girls and boys. Those were important issues and needed to be addressed by society.

Mr Magagula asked how UNICEF obtained the statistics data presented to the Committee. Furthermore Mr Magagula told the Committee that marriage and sex had to be defined. The presentation did not clearly define what the two words meant.

Mr Blight explained that the statistics presented by UNICEF came from the Demographic Health Survey and Civil Registers. The Demographic Health Survey was carried out in 75 countries. These countries were developing countries and recipients of foreign aid. The survey was representative, as it interviewed people in households on a random basis. The marriages were not necessarily registered.

He clarified that whereas sexual exploitation was a crime, early marriage was more nuanced than that as it was a social convention. 

Ms W Nelson (ANC) asked where the culture of child marriages was common. Was it more common in rural or urban areas?

Mr Blight said early marriages occurred mostly in areas where there was poverty, and there was an incentive for marrying off your young daughter. Secondary education access for girls would be low and early marriage rates would be higher.  The culture also had a strong link to rural communities where large family size was valued. There was also a link between the practice and polygamy.

Ms Nelson asked if UNICEF had information on children that were adopted in one country and sent to another country. Those children might find themselves in forced marriages, rather than being adopted into stable families.

Mr Blight said that there were very low fertility rates in the west and thus this created a demand for adopted children. There were numerous studies done which showed a rise in international adoption.  Adoption has been at times in exchange of cash. There was a Hague Convention that regulated international adoption to ensure that there was no monetary gain and the children were in need of care. The Hague Convention only applied to countries that had signed the convention, and South Africa was one of those countries.  The Hague Convention influenced the new Children’s Act in South Africa.

Ms H Malgas said that she agreed with Mr Magagula, there had to be a definition provided stating what sex was and what marriage was. She could not see a ten year old being sexually active. Ms Malgas thus wanted to know at what age were girls who were married having sex, and did they actually live with their husbands immediately after getting married.

Mr Blight replied that the practice varied.  In some countries the girls would go and live with their husbands immediately after getting married no matter how old they were, however in some countries the girls would go and live with the husband only when they got to a certain age. Some families would instruct the family of the groom that the girl was not allowed to have sex until she reached puberty.  

Ms Malgas asked if African countries actually enforced the African Charter for the Rights and Welfare of the Child. How many countries had actually complied with the charter? South African law actually prohibited the practice of child marriage.

Mr Blight replied that South Africa was a signatory to the African Charter. South Africa was very much in line with the African Charter for the Rights and Welfare of the Child. However there were some countries that did not adhere to the charter.

Ms S Kopane (DA) said that it was clear that there were many conventions prohibiting the practice. However she wanted to know what measures were there to monitor the implementation of the Charter for the Rights and Welfare of the Child in individual countries.

Mr Blight answered that there was a committee in Geneva that monitored the reports produced by countries on matters pertaining to the rights of children as required by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The committee provided comments to those reports. South Africa had been late in submitting it second and third periodic reports. He encouraged Parliament to look at why South Africa was late in submitting the report.  

The Chairperson asked if UNICEF had played a role in exerting pressure on the South African government to ensure that it actually dealt with early marriages and forced marriages in this country.

Mr Blight did not see it at as UNICEF’s role to exert pressure on the government. South Africa had a strong civil society, which had the legitimacy to protest. UNICEF’s role was to support the South African government in addressing the issues. It should be South African civil society that denounced government’s way of dealing with children’s rights.

The Chairperson said that she appreciated the fact that UNICEF had adopted a non-judgemental approach when dealing with the matter. However it was important for the country and the government to deal with extreme poverty, as it was that which that led people to commit such acts. Parents were compelling their children to marry at a young age because it provided them with the means to survive. Without dealing with poverty, the culture would never be abolished.

The Chairperson continued that Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) had to be addressed in South Africa, as the issue was no longer foreign to the country. There were foreigners in the country who brought along their own cultural practices and FGM/C was one of those. In the North West people were found to have infections because of the practice. The Department of Health and other government departments had to find measures to deal with the phenomenon. 

Mr Blight said that he appreciated the fact that the Chairperson had raised the FGM/C point. There were many cases of it in South Africa. This was due to the high number of immigrants and refugees from countries in which it was a common practice.

The Chairperson thanked Mr Blight for presenting the report to the Committee. The Committee said that it would be constructive for the Committee to work closely with UNICEF. They would share their five-year strategy plan with UNICEF to see where UNICEF could fit into the strategy.

Mr Blight said that UNICEF would be happy to work with Parliament. They had an officer who was responsible with liasing with Parliament. He thanked the Committee for taking an interest in the subject.

Social Development Portfolio Committee Five Year Strategic Plan: adoption
The strategic plan was adopted with minor technical changes.

International Parliamentary Conference in Addis Ababa
The Chairperson and two other members would be attending this conference.

Meeting adjourned.

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