Women’s Month 2016: Child marriages in South Africa

Child marriage affects girls in more ways than one. They are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers at the age that they get married. Child marriage results in girls being disempowered, dependent on their husbands and deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety.

The health of a child bride diminishes from the date of her marriage, as she “becomes a woman” before her body has been allowed to develop naturally. As a result of her age, she is less able to negotiate and articulate her rights to bodily autonomy. Access to healthcare and sexual reproductive healthcare, in particular, is difficult in the rural context and is exacerbated within the context of a rural girl child.

She stands a greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and during childbirth. Her exposure to HIV/AIDS infection, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases, increases. In the context of poverty, where she is reliant on her husband and her in-laws to care for her, she is at greater risk of having her rights to healthcare denied.

Many girls suffer domestic violence from their husbands and even from their in-laws. Her ability to protect herself and to have her bodily integrity respected is ignored. In instances where her own family has consented to the marriage, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave her abusive husband.

Child marriage usually means the end of a girl’s formal education. Once married, girls are burdened with their new responsibilities as wives and mothers and often stay at home as a result. A girl child’s husband or in-laws may not be supportive of her education and burden her with new adult responsibilities, leaving her no time to attend school. She may become entrenched in the cycle of poverty because, with little access to education, her opportunities to seek employment outside of the home diminish.

What can be done?

Government should set clear and consistent legislation that establishes 18 as the minimum age of marriage and remove any laws which allow for parental consent, for the following reasons:

  • Setting the legal age for marriage at 18 provides an objective, rather than subjective, standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready.
  • The existence of laws which prohibit child marriage is an important tool to help those working to dissuade families and communities from marrying off their daughters as children.
  • It is imperative that children are recognised in the law as being children and are afforded the full protection of the law. When a child does not have the right to vote or enter into other contracts before 18, why is marriage allowed?
  • Ending child marriage is not only the right thing to do, but is also an economically practical decision for empowering young female leaders who can support themselves and uplift their communities.

This post was developed as an informative tool for women. Please visit your nearest LRC office for further advice and assistance. Written by Naushina Rahim

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Published by

realisingrights

The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law clinic established in South Africa in 1979

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