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Counting the Cost of Underage Marriages in South Africa

Monday 20 November 2017


While the law gives parents the right of consent on child marriages, children have no say in the matter. This leaves them vulnerable to decisions usually based on financial gain for the parents.


A shocking 91 000 South African children between the ages of 13 and 17 are reportedly married, divorced, separated, widowed or living with a partner as husband and wife, with the latter forming the majority of the group.  


KwaZulu-Natal ranks the highest with 25 205 young girls and Gauteng a close second, with 15 929 from a population of three million nation-wide. 


According to Lois Moodley, Communications, Media and Advocacy Manager of Save the Children South Africa; “inaction to prevent child abuse costs South Africa nearly R238 billion in GDP annually.”


In 2015 physical violence against children cost R103.8 billion of the country’s GDP, sexual violence against children cost R28.6 billion of GDP, emotional violence against children cost R57.5 billion of GDP and childhood neglect R6.3 billion of 2015 GDP.


Although South African stats are lower than the rest of Africa and Niger having the world’s highest prevalence of child marriage, according to the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF), with three in four girls married under the age of 18. Driven by poverty, religion and insecurity, marrying off girls once they reach puberty or even before is a deeply engrained tradition in much of West and Central Africa, but with detrimental effects on health, education and development.


In South Africa there have been shocking cases such as those of Lesedi Moila who is now 35-years-old.  She grew up in Lesotho but moved to South Africa at the age of 10 to live with her aunt in Bloemfontien, her aunt was unemployed at the time and depended on her husband financially.  


It was when the husband left five years later that things got bad for Moila as her aunt then told her she would have to drop out of school and move to Cape Town.  “I was never told why, until we got to a house in Gugulethu and was told that it would be my new home. As a wife and mother,” she said.


Moila remembered being left at her new home and crying for the people who had brought her to the house, begging them not to leave her.  That night, her new husband, “old enough to be my grandfather” slept with her and “I remember crying and begging him to stop, but he did not.”  Years passed and Moila would remain in captivity, having to cook, clean and care for her young children aged two and eight-years-old at the time. 


For five dreadful years, Moila had to be the wife of an older man and a mother to children almost her age.  “It was when he died that I finally managed to get away, for the first time I was free, I ran and ended up living on the streets.” She was pregnant, and did not know it.  Now she lives her life everyday trying to rebuild herself and her 15-year-old child.


Moodley told Weekend Argus that the most common reason (for underage marriages) “is financial gain for the family in the form of the Lobola. Children may feel pressure to support the family and thus be reluctant to speak out. This is unfair pressure on the child and in some instances they are robbed of a childhood.”


Proffessor Deirdre Byrne, Chairperson of the Unisa-Africa Girl Development Programme (UNISA-AGDP) attributes such marriages to financial gain for the family where the girl child is regarded as a “drain on the resources”.  “Patriarchy reinforced by cultural believes and practices values the life of a son far higher than that of a daughter due to the status of a boy carrying the family name, continuing the family business, and contributing financially to the family home.  


“In addition the economic inequalities that besiege our society lead to poor families who do not have the resources to feed all their children, “selling” their underage daughters to lascivious men. Social inequities such as this together with the high maternal mortality and violence against women, weakens a society and is not only an issue of women but also impedes the development of Africa. When women are exposed to poor health, illiteracy, lack of control over fertility and employment, or basic human rights, their children pay the price too creating a downward spiral of stagnant economical development and growth,” said Byrne.


As a result, in countries like Malawi, child marriages have led children as young as 15 into prostitution, as according to Reuters, the husbands leave their young brides for countries such as South Africa with children and no financial support.


According to Reuters, girls as young as 14 to 18-years-old and in some cases as young as nine children forced into prostitution.


Experts say early marriage not only destroys a girl’s future but also perpetuates intergenerational poverty - children of parents with no education or skills are unlikely to break out of the poverty trap.



For more information: Lois Moodley on 0724401519 or [email protected]

About: Save the Children believes every child deserves a future. In South Africa and around the world, we give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We do whatever it takes for children – every day and in times of crisis – transforming their lives and the future we share. 

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