Globally, AIDS-related illnesses are the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. Photo:

Agnes Lungu, 56, and her husband married off their 15-year old daughter. Up until this day she regrets this decision. “I did not know about the harmful consequences of child marriage, and I feel very guilty I did this. It’s a wrong practice and nobody should do it,” she says.

Agnes is from Kakwiya, a village in Zambia, where the practice of child marriage is common. Although the law requires that a person must be at least 21 years of age to get married, under customary law it is possible to get married at a younger age with parental consent.

Many countries have plural legal systems where customary, indigenous or religious legal systems exist alongside the formal legal system. They may complement, conflict or overlap with the formal legal system and regulate issues such as marriage, domestic relationships, and property rights.

Worldwide, many laws, policies and practices continue to impede gender equality; they obstruct the empowerment of women and girls and their access to health services, including for HIV and sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR). It is not surprising that AIDS-related illnesses remain the leading global cause of death among women of reproductive age. The report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law made recommendations for countries to take action to protect the rights of women and girls, including those who are disproportionately affected by HIV.

In order to achieve the targets in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development pertaining to gender equality, health, poverty and reduced inequalities, it is important to recognise and address the consequences of plural legal systems, especially as they relate to child, early and forced marriage; women’s access to justice in cases of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence; access to contraceptives and other SRHR services; and the treatment of widows.

Gender equality is critical to achieve all three outcomes of the UNDP Strategic Plan 2018-2021 and is also one of the Strategic Plan’s six signature solutions. Gender equality and the empowerment of women is also a cornerstone of UNDP’s HIV, Health and Development Strategy of 2016-2021. UNDP, in partnership with civil society, UN entities and multilateral development partners have supported governments to advance laws and policies that promote gender equality and empower women and girls affected by plural legal systems. For example, in 2016, the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF) adopted the Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage and Protecting Children Already in Marriage. SADC Member States will be required to adapt their national laws to the Model Law which aims to address the inconsistencies and conflicts between customary and statutory laws.

Stakeholders must revitalise efforts to create legal and policy environments that enable women and girls, especially those affected by plural legal systems. Women’s equal rights to land, property and inheritance must be protected at national and sub-national levels. Ending child, early and forced marriage is crucial, and this requires sustained advocacy that includes cultural and traditional leaders. When advancing the rights of women affected by plural legal systems, we must also consider how these systems affect matters such as age of consent for adolescent access to SRHR, sexual orientation, gender identity, women’s bodily autonomy and adult consensual sex work.

Unless we redouble our efforts towards women’s empowerment and gender equality, the SDGs will remain a pipe dream for all.

About the author
Kene Esom
works with UNDP's HIV, Health and Development Group as a policy specialist focusing on human rights, law and gender. Among other issues, he works on promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls, and enabling legal and policy and regulatory environments for HIV and health. 


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