BY MOSIDI MOKAEYA
About 3000 girls living in Botswana have been married off to older men, or are currently co-habiting – a frightening figure for a population of just over 2 million inhabitants.
An anti-child marriage campaign by the United Nation’s Population Fund (UNFPA) has revealed that at least 2997 girls are victims.
The report was released in 2016 and child protection specialists fear the numbers might be higher in 2019. Child marriages are normally a family arrangement so the cases are seldom ever reported to the police.
As a result the evil festers as the perpetrators are hardly ever brought to book. Lately international bodies have been keen on the state of Botswana’s children because government is slow to implement the Children’s Act.
It has grown increasingly important for local girl children to be empowered with education geared towards sparing them from such abuse. They need information, skills and services. They need to be healthy, educated and safe enough to transition well to adulthood without being taken as wives when they can barely understand their own emotions let alone bodies.
Human Rights Advisor at Stepping Stones International (SSI) Chirwa Mahloko said in an interview that one big child marriage indicator is the percentage of women between 20 and 24 years of age who were either married or in a union before they turned 18. “The men they get married to are also significantly older than them. Local numbers are skyrocketing,” he revealed.
The areas covered by the UNFPA research were Gaborone, Francistown, Lobatse, Selebi Phikwe, Orapa, Jwaneng, Sowa Town, Ngwaketsi, Borolong, South East District, Kweneng District, Kgatleng District, Central District, Bobonong, Boteti, Tutume, North East District, Ngamiland District Chobe District and Kgalagadi District.
Mahloko said ironically there are virtually no reported cases of child marriages, perhaps only a handful in Botswana despite the numbers turned up by UNFPA. “Child marriage is usually a family arrangement that is very traditional amongst local tribes like Baherero and Bahambukushu. Such issues are never spoken about in public by the concerned families as they marry the young girls off. Only during awareness raising activities such issues may be raised. Public Discussions on the Children’s Act, Marriage Act, Penal Code and the like are normally rare opportunities to dialogue,” Mahloko explained.
He added: “Many of them have come to our offices to seek guidance on how to escape the relationships. This normally happens when they reach about 22 years of age. We refer them to social workers who I know have their work cut out for them. During consultations with them they tell us they feel trapped with men they do not love.”
Mahloko said the cases are all extremely sad. “Mothers accept shopping bags full of groceries from rich uncles in exchange for their 8 year old daughters who remain traumatised forever. Sadly it is so engraved in some local tribe cultures that the evil seems impossible to break. The young girls do not have a voice as everyone around them is silent,” said Mahloko.
For his part Police Commissioner Keabetswe Makgope confirmed that there are no reported cases of child marriages owing to the nature of the crime.
“Unfortunately the cases are never reported. We urge the community to help us detect such crimes as they happen in their neighbourhoods. Community policing should not only be limited to theft. In fact should we discover that a child has been abused in any way and the adults around that child have ignored the situation, the adults will end up jailed too,” he said.
Many international agreements outlaw child marriages. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
The International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 also called on countries to eliminate child marriage. The high number of girl children married or co habiting with older men in Botswana is a cause for concern. It is also a clear sign of non compliance to the Children’s Act, international conventions and laws.