Zimbabwe takes lead in addressing child marriages: UNICEF

Albert Chavhunduka

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has commended Zimbabwe for the initiatives the country has taken by putting in place marriage legislation and institutional frameworks as a way of addressing the scourge of child marriages and sexual exploitation of children.

According to UNICEF, child marriage remains a widespread form of violence against children in Zimbabwe and one woman out of every three women who are between the ages of 20 to 49 was married before the age of 18.

At the side-lines of the Day of the African Child commemorations recently, Review & Mail reporter Albert Chavhunduka (AC) had an exclusive interview with UNICEF Country Representative Dr Tajudeen Oyewale (TO) who expressed his organisation’s commitment to work closely with government to end child marriage and integrate women and their participation in the economic development of the country.

Q: How far do you think the recent move by the courts to raise the age of sexual consent from 16 to 18 will go in addressing issues of sexual exploitation of children and early marriages in Zimbabwe?

TO: To start with, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the recent action by the government of Zimbabwe has harmonised a lot of loopholes because when you have a different age for marriage, a different age for maturity and different age for sexual consent, you mix things up and people can find excuses here and there.

So by harmonising with the definition of what is a child, for us UNICEF a child is anyone below the age of 18. So this is really a clear demonstration or a clear statement of who is a child and I think what the Constitutional Court has also done is highly commendable.

Now what does this do for children, firstly it gives all actors a clear framework to be clear in our messaging for children. We don’t need to mention several ages, a child is less than 18 years of age and any marriage that involves a child is not acceptable. I think clear messaging is very important and a clear legal framework is another and it also allows law enforcement agents to have a clear definition of how they can prosecute cases without looking for ambiguity.

Lastly, for us as UNICEF I think this is great in the sense that in the community, when we go to talk about children, we don’t have to say children of this age or that age. A child is a child and at community level we want our parents and our elders to protect the child and in that context, protect the girl child from marriage, sexual exploitation and abuse. So this is good for us and it’s a framework that calls us to do more in the implementation.

Q: Zimbabwe has set out a prestigious agenda under President Emmerson Mnangagwa through Vision 2030. What is the UNICEF doing that is in line with the NDS1 and complimentary of the government policies?

TO: For UNICEF and the broader United Nations (UN) systems in Zimbabwe, our cooperation framework is informed by the National Development Strategy one (NDS1). Last year, the UNICEF country programme was endorsed and because of the alignment of the NDS1.

Specifically, for UNICEF our programme is focused on the following.

We are focusing on all the work around maternal, new born and child health care to contribute to the commitment of the government in the health sector and also in the education sector. We also have a strong focus on child protection from abuse and exploitation. There is also the presidential protection of women and girls and our work also contribute in that area.

We are clear that education is a lifeline towards empowerment of children and we do work closely with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education within the framework of the NDS1 to ensure that all children in Zimbabwe are in school and they get quality learning.

Lastly, we are investing a lot in the work around water, hygiene and sanitation and the ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries is doing a great job there leading the national multisectoral taskforce and WASH. As UNICEF, we are happy to be a partner to the government of Zimbabwe there.

We are also grateful to our different donors and development partners who continue to invest in our programme and also support UNICEF towards attaining its goals in terms of supporting the children in Zimbabwe.

Q: What do you think our governments in Africa need to ensure that the rights of the girl child are protected and also enhance their participation in the development of our individual economies?

TO: The issue of early child marriages and abuse is not peculiar to one country or another, it is a global phenomenon not only prevalent in Africa.

I’m happy that we are actually talking about it. I think from the governments specifically; we have to look at it in multiple layers.

The first, like I said earlier on is the legal framework which I think the government has got that put in place. The second, is going to be the institutional framework, the capacity for those who hold accountability at different levels to respond, for example law enforcement, social workers, schools and communities.

We have a policy for example that allows a child to return back to school after delivering, this is a progressive policy from Zimbabwe and supporting their implementation will be great. I think the government can also reach out and we are happy to work with the government, religious leaders and community leaders to also imbibe the need to protect children and prevent them from getting into early marriages because this is where we have the key issue.

Lastly, is the work around parental communication. Parents play a critical role in protecting children and I think the work that the Ministry of Information, Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Public Service are doing towards engaging community members. Let’s also not forget the village health workers under the Ministry of Health, these are critical structures that the government of Zimbabwe has put in place.

For us as UNICEF, we have to work with these structures and support their capacity and try to come up with harmonised messaging and we are grateful for this opportunity.

Q: As UNICEF, what is your take on the narrative that women are an untapped source of power that can help in the sustainable development of a country’s economy starting from the community level especially in light of climate change?

TO: There’s no question about the great roles that women play, I’ll try to give you a practical answer.

I was in Gwanda and Plumtree last week and we were looking into some big farms and how local food production is done and translated into local food and diet, and who were the people leading? It’s the women, massive women groups who are not only tilling the soil and ensuring that we have food but also advancing on food practices and that is at community level.

I think as Africa, we are giving women space and yes we have to do more. As UNICEF, gender equality is central as our principle and in our programmes. That’s why our focus on the adolescent girl is primary and that’s also the reason why this is a key advocacy agenda for our office here in Zimbabwe

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