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IT was truly a moment to savour for a then young Nthapeleng Moketa when she enrolled for secondary education at Likhakeng High School in Leribe, for she was only the second girl from her village in Limapong in Mokhotlong to achieve the feat.
She immediately set her sights on the bigger goal of becoming the first female from her village to enroll at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) and such was her determination that she made a solemn personal vow never to allow for distractions that come with teenage love affairs.
Little did the-then 15 year old know that her parents were already scheming to marry her off immediately after her 16th birthday.
“I remember that day as if it was yesterday,” Ms Moketa, now aged 56 told the Lesotho Times this week.
She recalled her excitement on returning home for the Christmas break, eager to share her experiences as a Form A learner with her family.
“On that day I arrived home and my sister-in-law told me that there were preparations to marry me off to a boy I didn’t even know who was working in the South African mines. I didn’t sleep at all and I cried all night,” Ms Moketa recalled.
Although she returned to school after the break in 1972, she was haunted by the fact that that year in Form B would be her last before being married off to the faceless stranger later in the year.
And in December 1972, the suitor’s family paid the full bride price and preparations for the wedding commenced immediately.
“Remember I didn’t know this man and my family made all preparations without even consulting me. But death saved me from that loveless child marriage.
“On the day of our wedding’s first announcement in church, we received a message that my prospective husband had been stabbed to death in South Africa,” Ms Moketa said, adding, she was so happy but she cried out loud in feigned grief to hoodwink her parents.
She survived the ordeal and eventually married the man of her dreams and they were subsequently blessed with five children.
Ms Moketa was very fortunate and not many Basotho women are ever this lucky to escape child marriages.
What is child marriage?
According to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), “child marriage is a formal marriage or informal union before age 18. It is a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are disproportionately the most affected”.
“Child marriage is widespread and can lead to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation,” UNICEF adds.
In countries like Lesotho, even when the legal age of marriage is 18 years, culture and traditions take priority over legislation.
Child marriage affects both boys and girls, although the overwhelming majority of those affected are girls, mostly from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
The United Nations Populations’ Fund (UNFPA) says that child marriages deny girls the right to choose whom and when to marry.
“Choosing one’s partner is an adult decision, one that should be made freely and without fear or coercion.
“Despite near-universal commitments to end child marriages, approximately one third of girls in developing countries are married off before reaching age 18”.
In Lesotho, according to UNICEF, two percent of married women were married off on their 15th birthday while 19 percent got married at 18 years as per the Demographic and Health Survey Report of 2009.
The latest Demographic and Health Survey Report of 2014, released in 2016, however states that 17.7 percent of girls aged between 15-19 years were married while only a mere one percent of boys on the same age were married.
Effects of child marriage
According to UNFPA, “Child marriage directly threatens girl’s health and well-being. Marriage is often followed by pregnancy, even if a girl is not yet physically or mentally ready. In developing countries, nine out of 10 births to adolescent girls occur within a marriage of union.”
In these countries, Lesotho included, UNFPA said complications from pregnancy and childbirth were among the leading causes of death among adolescent girls aged 15 to 19.
UNFPA also said the child brides were also exposed to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS.
“Early marriage also limits their opportunities, including future employment prospects, and has long-term effects on their families.
“Girls who leave school have worse health and economic outcomes that those who stay in school, and eventually their children face worse as well,” UNFPA said.
Up in arms
Worried by the escalating number of reported cases of children married under the age of 18, World Vision Lesotho partnered with UNICEF Lesotho and the Justice Ministry to organise the second National Children’s Parliament which was held in Thaba-Bosiu on the 19th of January.
The shadow parliamentary opposition lashed out at government for its failure to enforce laws prohibiting parents and guardians from marrying off their children for money.
Playing the role of Leader of Opposition, Member of Parliament Kabelo Kelapa said it was evident that government ministries were not doing enough to address issues of child marriage.
“There are numerous pending court cases on children’s issues and this shows that resources are not being channeled to ensure that such cases are brought to finality to enable children get justice,” MP Kelapa said.
He called on government to ensure that all laws protecting children against child marriage are enforced immediately.
Child Prime Minister, Tšitso Monokoa said over the course of 50 years of independence, government had done a lot to ensure children enjoyed maximum protection and welfare rights.
He made reference to Child Protection and Welfare Act 2011, Marriage Act 1992, Marriage Act 1974, Labour Code Act 1992, Education Act 2010 and many other laws.
Mr Monokoa further said Lesotho had ratified international laws, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and that government was working in collaboration with non-government organisations to ensure that children were protected.
“This year we are faced with a huge task to eradicate child marriage in Lesotho, both for underage girls and boys. Besides this, we are all aware that there were laws whose sections contradict each other and we are appealing to the opposition to help us address this problem urgently as it would go a long way in eradicating child marriage,” Mr Monokoa said.
UNICEF Lesotho Acting Country Representative Victor Ankrah commended the children’s parliament for its immense contribution to the passing of the Children’s Welfare and Protection Act in 2010, adding, he hoped the latest children’s parliament “will be fruitful and will lead to a greater enforcement of the good laws that we have in this country”.
“Voices of children to help promote protection of every child in Lesotho,” Mr Ankrah said.
He said there was an urgent need for all stakeholders to focus on ensuring that laws were enforced to protect children.
He said UNICEF would embark on advocacy and programmes to address the challenges raised by the children’s parliament to help protect children’s rights.
Ending child marriages
In his address to the 2017 National Children’s Parliament, Deputy Minister of Education, Thabang Kholumo said children must be given a chance to develop without being forced into early marriages.
“Children need to raise the issues and influence a change in policy-making and we should remember that the problem realised is the problem half-solved. Let me assure you that it will not go to waste,” Mr Kholumo said.
He said this shadow parliament discussions would go a long way to reprimand child marriage perpetrators who exploited children because of socio-economic circumstances.
Meanwhile, World Vision Lesotho and Swaziland Director, Pauline Okumu said all stakeholders had a responsibility to end child marriages in Lesotho.
A non-governmental organisation – Help Lesotho – warned there was an urgent need to come up with strategies that would ensure that teenagers do not idle during school holidays as this also contributed to early marriages.
Help Lesotho Senior Officer Advocacy and Gender, Felleng Lethola also said it was important for parents to have open lines of communication with their children because at times children were forced into child marriages because of lack of knowledge.