By Patience Nyangove
FAMILIES in the Kunene region have resorted to arranging marriages for their daughters at birth, in exchange for a few cattle or money, in order to survive the scourge of acute poverty, Confidente can reveal.
This is according to a National Council Women Caucus Outreach report, compiled after visits to the //Karas, Hardap, Zambezi, Kavango West and Ohangwena regions last year.
The shocking revelations include that girls born into poor families are being forced into child marriages to older men, who already have up to 10 wives.
This girls are promised to their husbands at birth, and are handed to his family, who raise them until puberty, when the marriage is then consummated.
The girls are between the ages of 10 and 16, when they are deflowered by their husbands.
According to social workers in the Kunene region, the situation has become so bad that there is little they can do about the child marriages, because of the cultural practices at play, especially among the Ovahimba, Ovazemba and Ovatua communities.
National Council Chairperson, MargaretMensah-Williams, confirmed to Confidente this week that child marriages were common, especially among the Ovahimba people, and were continuing unabated, due to society’s fear of tackling cultural practices that are self-defeating, and against the country’s constitution.
“The problem of early child marriages in Kunene region is big. We have cases where the girl child is married off at birth to older men, who give the child’s parents a few cattle, in exchange for that baby. Once that girl reaches puberty, the man sleeps with the minor,” she said.
When social workers were asked why they don’t report these cases of statutory rape, child marriages and human trafficking, they said these were sensitive matters, with cultural overtones, Mensah-Williams said.
“Child marriages are happening in Namibia, but we are so scared of talking about anything that has sex in it. We pretend as if it doesn’t exist, while some people are marrying off young children, so that they get money or cattle.
“We are so afraid to talk about it; we are afraid of being castigated, and we sit idly by while our young girls are being destroyed by older men. Traditional leaders, teachers, politicians and everyone in society have a role to play, to bring to an end cultural practices that are in direct conflict with our constitution,” Mensah-Williams said.
A report, which documents the National Council visits to the various regions mentioned, between 12 and 16 September last year, also says that even boys are being forced into child marriages
“Early child marriage is practiced in some cultures. By law, children under the age of 18 cannot get married without the consent of both parents and the state. Some children under the age of 18 are forced into marriages, and thus do not have an option to choose their own spouses,” the report said.
“Child marriages affect both boys and girls, although the overwhelming majority of those affected are girls, most of whom are in poor socio-economic situations. In this case, girls are not only forced to marry, but are often pressurised to drop out of school to start a family.
“One of the reasons given for entering into early marriage is poverty, because the girl will be able to take care of herself and family from the money she receives from the man,” the report added.
Kunene Regional Governor, Angelika Muharukua, however, denied this week that such practices are taking place in her region.
“Those things used to happen in the past, and it wasn’t only in the Kunene region, but also elsewhere in the country; even in the 1900s. But it is a practice which has been dropped. It was not only the Ovahimba people who did this,” she said.
“However, at the time when a child was married off, it was usually to a close relative and not to a stranger. But due to civilisation, this practice is now non-existent, and even if it was the case (that it is still happening), the child will not agree if they do not want.”
The National Council report also revealed that some parents force their children to fall pregnant, because they want to become grandparents.
“It is said that some parents are motivating their children to get pregnant, because they need grandchildren, and (the children) then go back to school after delivering their babies.
“Such parents need education, because they might not be educated themselves, to know what is good for their children and the consequences of becoming pregnant at an early age,” the report said.
The report also noted that a third of all rape and attempted rape victims, countrywide, were under the age of 18.
“This is very worrisome, as the girl child is not protected, and as a result, falls victim to such acts. Moreover, even where there is no overt coercion, the disparities in gender equality in Namibia often mean that girls may feel powerless to negotiate sexual behaviour or use contraceptives.”
Mensah-Williams said it was time that the country considers decriminalising commercial sex work.
“Men also buy sex, but are never arrested, while women are arrested. These women, if we don’t educate and empower them, will continue to be trapped in this cycle of prostitution,” she said.
“We are not saying legalise commercial sex work, but just decriminalise it. Former Prime Minister Libertine (Amathila) once raised such issues, and there was an uproar that we want people to be prostitutes, but that’s not what we are saying.
“Sex workers need our assistance. It has been reported to us that some haulage truck drivers don’t even like to use condoms, especially that side of Oshikango, which leaves the women at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
“If we don’t look after these women and empower them, then we are letting our women down. No woman enjoys sleeping with different men, but they have no choice; it’s their circumstances that force them to resort to that. These women need us to offer them an alternative.
“Let us all not be too judgemental. No man or woman is safe from all this. I have heard some people brag that their wife or husband doesn’t cheat. How do you know that for certain? Do you guard them 24/7?” Mensah-Williams added.
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015