Child marriages - Botswana’s a perfect crime

16 Sep 2019

BY MPHO KUHLMANN

When it comes to child marriages, Botswana presidents have been making all the right noises. Almost all of the country’s presidents have jumped at every opportunity to sign international conventions to eliminate child marriages: In 1995 the late President Sir Ketumile Masire acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child which set a minimum age of marriage of 18, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1996, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.

His successor President Festus Mogae was among 20 heads of state who made a commitment to eliminate child marriage by the end of 2020 under the Ministerial Commitment on comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents and young people in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Former President Lt Gen Ian Khama committed to eliminate child marriages by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals. To prove his commitment, Botswana co-sponsored the 2017 Human Rights Council resolution recognising the need to address child, early and forced marriage. The country also co-sponsored the 2013 Human Rights Council resolution on child and forced marriage, and signed a joint statement  at the 2014 Human Rights Council calling for a resolution on child marriage

With only one year to go before the 2020 milestone set by Mogae, just try to look at how many of these conventions have been turned into action and the whole elaborate façade comes crashing down.

Indications are that all the three Botswana presidents were all talk and no action.

When during its 2010 review, the CEDAW Committee raised concerns about child marriages being one of the causes for girls dropping out of school, Botswana had to concede it can't keep track of the extent of the child marriage problem in the country.

In an interview with the Sunday Standard INDEPTH Assistant Commissioner for Botswana Police, Dipheko Motube disclosed that they don’t have any cases recorded for child marriages in Botswana, and as far as they are concerned child marriages in the country are just hearsay.

That Botswana does not have any data and case reports on child marriages makes it a perfect crime.

Although Khama committed to eliminate child marriages by 2030 as one of their Sustainable Development Goals targets, he was unable to provide an update on progress towards this target during the Voluntary National Review at the 2017 High Level Political Forum.

Thabiso Gulubane, lawyer at Khumomotse Law Practice in Gaborone says, “The legal age of marriage is 18 for both men and women. Forced marriages for children under the age of 18 and child betrothal are prohibited under the Children’s Act (Act 8 of 2009). Both the Marriages Act and the Children’s Act provide penalties for those who solemnize child marriages, including fines and imprisonment. Child marriage is reportedly uncommon however, the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS reported that in 2015 at least 3 cases of child marriage took place, and these cases occurred within the Bazezuru tribe. Most young girls who are child brides are in customary marriages which are common law marriages where there isn’t any proof of the marriage. Generally the man takes several wives according to what he can afford; he usually has five to six wives of different ages. The Bazezuru customary marriage is an issue because it impacts a lot of things. If a 13/14 year old girl is married, that impacts her ability to go to school. She will be forced to drop out of school and start taking care of her household now as a married woman. Her health also takes a hit; she is now at a risk of teenage pregnancy which is usually riddled with complications. There are also the psychological and emotional issues that she goes through because a 13/14 year old is not a fully developed adult as they are not capable of appreciating what it means to enter into a marriage relationship, they are being pressured by their communities. There’s an economic danger, if a household has a ‘big daddy’ and several wives, each one of those women who are uneducated are tied to him because there is no other way to provide for themselves. Their families have pushed them into these predicaments; they are trapped in these marriages making them prone to abuse which happens to also be covered by their communities.

These women pool what they earn to one house and it is usually under the control of the man.”

Gulubane’s statement supports concerns by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that “the regulation of marriage registrations and raising of the minimum age of marriage to 18 under the Marriage Act Cap 29:01 did not apply to customary and religious marriages.”

UNICEF also reported that “child marriage is most common among the Zezuru, Basarwa and parts of the Kgalagadi communities in the North West region. Although traditional arranged marriages through betrothal (peeletso) are no longer permissible, customary law still enables young girls to marry with parental permission.”

Almost 25 years after the Botswana government signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child which sets a minimum age of marriage of 18 the country’s child marriage problem seems more intractable than ever. Two decades later there are no known cases of the Children’s Act (Act 8 of 2009) being used against culprits who force under age children into marriage. They have become sort of forgotten little laws.

One of the narratives that surround the discourse on child marriages in Botswana is that the public knows about child marriages in their communities but doesn’t know. It’s a piece of cognitive dissonance that perhaps is more broadly explained by the idea that people are aware of these marriages, yet it is hard to discern what is unacceptable in  theocratic communities and cultures  laden with traditional institutionalization, and the oppression of women. The traditional and theocratic culture of the “Zezuru, Basarwa and parts of the Kgalagadi communities in the North West Region “where UNICEF reported that child marriages is most common now sits uncomfortably with the dominant portrayal of the Botswana society that Masire, Mogae and Khama sought to present to the UN and the international community. So far, government’s ambiguous reaction only serves to obfuscate the diverse and nuanced nature of the problem.

This explains why child marriage is one of Botswana’s biggest scandals that are hiding in plain sight.

Former Customary Court President, Ludo Mosojane came close to outlining the complexity of the problem during the 2015 June 16 commemoration of the “Twenty-five Years after the Adoption of the African Children’s Charter: Accelerating our Collective Efforts to End Child Marriage in Africa”. Mosojane stated that child marriage is increasingly recognised as a violation of the rights of girls or boys for the reasons that marriage effectively ends their education and blocks any opportunity to gain vocational and life skills.

“In addition, child marriages expose girls to the risk of early pregnancy, child bearing and motherhood before they are physically and psychologically ready.”

Mosojane stressed that Botswana is a nation that is still deep rooted in culture and tolerates other cultures, including those which tolerate early marriages such as the Bazezuru.

“We hope that as time goes they will change on child marriage. For instance, they started off not going to the hospitals to get medical attention and slowly they are coming around,” she said.

UNFPA Botswana Strategic Information Specialist representative, Boago Makane says “The term “child marriage” is used to describe a legal or customary union between two people, of whom one or both spouses is below the age of 18. The practice affects girls in greater numbers and with graver consequences. Child marriage is often referred to as “early” and/or “forced” marriage since children, given their age, are not able to give free, prior and informed consent to their marriage partners or to the timing of their marriage. Many girls, for example, may have little understanding of or exposure to other life options. They may “willingly” accept marriage as their allotted fate. An element of coercion may also be involved if families apply social or emotional pressure or urge marriage for economic reasons, or further advocate marriage in the (misguided) belief that such a union will keep their daughters safe. The practice is somehow concealed in Botswana and spoken of in hushed tones because people tend to believe it doesn’t exist. The practice is prevalent among the Bazezuru people. Child marriage violates girls’ rights and it does so in a number of ways. It effectively brings a girl’s childhood and adolescence to a premature and unnatural end by imposing adult roles and responsibilities before she is physically, psychologically and emotionally prepared. It is not uncommon for marriage to impose social isolation on girls bringing unwanted separation from their friends and family. Often child marriage brings an end to a girl’s chance of continued education. Girls may be removed from school for many reasons. Even with the appropriate laws against child marriage in place, the practice persists for a variety of complex, interrelated reasons. Men exercise the preponderance of power in nearly every aspect of life, which restricts women’s and girls’ exercise of their rights and denies them an equal role in their households and communities. Unequal gender norms put a much higher value on boys and men than on girls and women. When girls from birth lack the same perceived value as boys, families and communities may discount the benefits of educating and investing in their daughters’ development. Poverty is a major factor underlying child marriage. Many parents genuinely believe that marriage will secure their daughters’ futures and that it is in their best interests. Alternatively, girls may be viewed as an economic burden, as a commodity, or a means for settling familial debts or disputes, or securing social, economic or political alliances.