The SADC Model Law to end child marriages: A step in the right direction 

Christina Nyandoro

On the 3rd of June 2016, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum adopted a Model law to end child marriages and protect those already in the marriage. The development underlines the fact that child marriage is a national, regional and global concern. Statistically, Southern Africa countries such as Swaziland and South Africa have a low prevalence rate of child marriages at 6% and 7% respectively. Malawi and Mozambique on the other hand have 50% and 56% respectively making them the countries with the highest rates of child marriages in the SADC region. This is mainly due to economic pressures and social and cultural traditions which continue to drive families to marry off their daughters at a very young age.  

Africa at large needs strategies that are designed to prevent and eliminate child marriages. Such strategies should include legal reform, change in cultural norms and more so measures that strengthen girls’ education and improve economic opportunities for young women.  At the national level a number of SADC countries have taken initiatives against this retrograde social practice. In Mozambique, former first lady Graca Machel launched a national campaign that sought to challenge the government to take measures needed to eliminate the risk of child marriage.  There have been an important judicial pronouncements on the constitutionality of child marriages as well. In Zimbabwe the Constitutional Court made a landmark ruling in the case of Mudzuru v Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs that outlawed child marriages a decision that was well received by the nation and the African region at large.  In Malawi, the youth have played a pivotal role in petitioning the government to repeal statutory provisions which gives rights to parents to marry off their children below the age of fifteen years.  These necessary steps are driving change across Southern Africa.  

 When the SADC Parliamentary Forum began work on the Model Law a major breakthrough in ending child marriages. The Forum’s plenary sessions were characterized by intense debate on the many parts of the draft model law that required bold decisions to be taken.  One other striking feature of the debates was that traditional leaders were also in attendance, in what was a first for most of them. This was highly commendable. It showed that traditional leaders are awakening to the problems presented by child marriages, but just as pertinent is the fact that it affirms their role in ending child marriages. As community leaders, they wield great influence in shaping cultural values, and will be critical to changing cultural norms and practices that encourage child marriage.  The SADC Model law was adopted without a contest and has been hailed by a number of organizations as a landmark decision that can change the lives of millions of girls in Africa for the better. 

What does the Model law set out to do? 

The Model Law  is designed to assist countries to reform and modernize their laws in accordance with international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights as well as in the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the  African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. SADC member states are expected to incorporate the law into domestic legislation to prevent this practice. In a nutshell, the Model law seeks to promote the effective prevention and elimination of child marriages and to ensure the safety and security of children.  

 However to ensure that the objectives of the Model Law the national legislatures of the member states will have to undertake legislative reforms that will give effect to the Mode Law.  They must also come up with comprehensive action plans to implement strategies and policies that end child marriages. With the adoption of the Model Law however, it is necessary that monitoring mechanisms, is created to ensure that SDAC states take the necessary steps to adopt it as national legislation, repeal laws that recognise child marriages and adopt administrative measures to ensure that child marriages become a thing of the past.