End child marriage: Leveraging the power of South Africa’s media and storytelling to reshape the narrative

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Dimpho Lekgeu, Blog4Dev South Africa winner Dimpho Lekgeu, Blog4Dev South Africa winner

According to a report by the South Africa Commission for Gender Equality, the country has approximately 91,000 under-aged children who have been married, divorced, separated or living with a partner. These numbers are highest in rural KwaZulu-Natal, which holds 27% of the numbers, and in the country's economic hub, Gauteng, which accounts for 16%.  

In March 2019, local audiences were introduced to 15-year-olds Thando Msomi and Siyacela Dlamuka on the prime-time television show, "Isencane Lengane" which loosely translates to "this child is still too young." The program followed the lives of the teenagers as they prepared for their Zulu traditional wedding. As expected, the controversial production received backlash from human rights activists who accused the channel of normalizing child marriage and oppressive cultural norms.  

Although the show aired anyway, it forced South Africans to start talking about the realities of child marriage, its stifling effects on social and economic development, and regressive cultural norms, while also inspiring action and shifting attitudes through robust engagement on social media. This demonstrates the undeniable power of media and storytelling to challenge perspectives, expose hidden truths and amplify the voices of those who have been rendered voiceless.  

In the battle against child marriage, engaging and thought-provoking storytelling, has the power to first, raise awareness,  awakening people to the reality of child marriage as a persistent social ill. Storytelling through the media is also educational,  exposing the dire consequences of child marriage on individuals, families, the broader community, the education system and on the economy. It would also allow us to change the messaging; the term "child marriage" is flawed because it fails to communicate that the practice is in fact, the kidnapping, abduction, trade, enslavement and abuse of children. Careful reporting and storytelling must also bring attention to the fact that victims of child marriage are not always exclusively girls. According to a study by UNICEF, 115 million men and boys globally were married as children and of these, 23 million were married before the age of 15.  

Finally, storytelling through media allows for more diverse representation, portraying women as educated members of society who can occupy multiple spaces, than just that of mother and wife. Retail giant Gucci recently partnered with Vice Studios and U.S. feminist journalist and social political activist, Gloria Steinem, to produce the film "Sitara" about a young girl who dreams of becoming a pilot but is forced into a marriage by her family. The idea behind the partnership is to spread the word as far as possible, and in so doing, inspire conversation and action. I believe that partnerships such as this, where pertinent issues are engaged with by means of storytelling, creativity, representation and discussion, are both effective and far-reaching.  

Moreover, I propose the establishment of grants, fellowships and training for journalists who will report on instances of child marriage, progress made and hold legislators accountable for enforcing existing laws. I recommend collaboration with prominent business and economic magazines and publications, such as Forbes and The Economist to publish more stories the issue;  child marriage is also a serious economic issue and should get more coverage as such. It increases child birth rates, decreases productivity and robs young people of an opportunity to be educated economic participants. Lastly, targeted, rural-based education programs will help counter traditionalist thinking and oppressive cultural norms where young people are forced into marriage as a cultural practice. 



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