‘Tough action needed against men who impregnate children’

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Tsitsi Matope

THE Ministry of Social Development is on a drive to finding lasting solutions that will address vulnerabilities that have seen an increase in demand for social assistance. In this wide-ranging interview with the Lesotho Times (LT), the Minister of Social Development, ‘Matebatso Doti (MD), speaks on the need for new mechanisms that strengthen collaboration with various actors in order to effectively tackle the underlying causes of poverty. 

LT: The Ministry of Social Development continues providing social assistance to thousands of poor people and the number is increasing, why has poverty remained such a huge challenge for the government? 

MD: Poverty is still a major challenge for the government because over the years, we have not done much in terms of designing programmes that effectively empower all our people, particularly those in the rural areas. The majority of people who receive social assistance are from the rural areas where many families who have depended on agriculture for many years are now finding it hard to sustain themselves due to the negative effects of climate change. As a result, we are seeing many families in the rural areas falling into the vulnerability bracket because there is nothing in place to make sure that in the event of adverse weather, such as drought, the farmers can continue producing food, which they consume and also sell to get an income. As you know, more than 50 percent of our people in Lesotho live in the rural areas where they earn a living through crop and livestock farming.

So due to limited opportunities in the rural economy, we are seeing people migrating to the urban areas, where there are also limited employment opportunities. The situation has led to increased urban poverty, which is a major challenge for us because we do not have sustained programmes targeting urban poverty because our National Information System for Social Assistance (NISSA) currently excludes people in the urban areas.

There are other social issues that have also contributed to increased poverty such as the HIV and AIDS epidemic that has seen us providing grants to 70,000 orphans and vulnerable children in the country. This has also increased the burden of care on equally vulnerable grandparents. Child marriages continue creating mothers who are not empowered economically. These situations, among others, have seen a continued manifestation of intergenerational poverty which then demands effective and multi-faceted actions by various stakeholders working closely with the government. 

LT: What interventions are in place in your ministry for the support of the most poor people, are they making the impact you would like to see? 

MD: The change I would like to see is when very poor people graduate from social assistance and are able to sustain themselves. This condition requires strong partnership and collaboration with other ministries and development partners. I believe it’s not only formal jobs that can help people get out of poverty but also, providing support to enable the poor to start sustainable projects or cooperatives, is also a life-changing initiative. That is where we are as a government, to spur employment creation through provision of support for micro and small businesses. We need to do everything strategically, plan together on how we can deal with poverty, through the National Strategic Development Strategy and other programmes designed to support work being done in various ministries. The fact that the demand for social assistance is still high and may increase by 2019 when we expect NISSA to cover more community councils (64), means we need to do more through various other sectors to ensure that we have less people coming to the Ministry of Social Development. The money we are spending to provide some relief to the poor could then be used for other poverty alleviation projects through this ministry.

Currently we have programmes supporting orphans and vulnerable children, and during the 2017/18 financial year, M65 million went towards the child grant assistance; we spent M38 million to support poor people around the country with cash transfers of M750 per quarter; and we also spent M4 million providing in-kind support, which is also falls under the Public Assistance Programme. In-kind support includes items such as food parcels, coffins, clothes and other forms of assistance, such as buying spectacles for the poor with vision problems.

We are also providing secondary school bursaries to orphans and vulnerable children and in the last financial year we spent M 61 million while M3.2 million went towards supporting institutions caring for orphans and vulnerable children. The subvention support is based on the capacity of the care facilities. 

LT: You spoke about the need to tackle urban poverty by expanding NISSA coverage, but do you have the financial resources to cater for poor people in urban areas? 

MD:  The mandate of the ministry is currently confined to providing assistance in-cash and in-kind with no conditions on beneficiaries to do some work because our scope of operation is different from that of public works, for example. We do not have programmes supporting the establishment of income-generating projects but depend on our partners within the government to lead such programmes, which in turn supports our work. Our support is also on condition of vulnerability and on the basis that you attend school, in the case of bursary support. For the urban people, we need to do more than what we are providing under the Public Assistance Programme. This is a programme that targets all vulnerable people in both urban and rural areas, but remember, our targeting in the urban areas is not as organised and as easy as in the 46 community councils covered under NISSA. We would like to improve on that and ensure we have broad assistance programmes that can help the urban poor. This is my second time as a minister of Social Development and I can tell you that the major problem in the urban areas is hunger. We are seeing a growing number of street kids hustling on the streets to fend for their poor families. I intent to turn my wish into real actions to help families of these children so that they can stay at home, go to school and not end up involved in crime. Importantly, we have to appreciate that the urban poor cannot grow their own food because most of them do not own property from where they can grow something to eat. We need to deal with the serious urban hunger issue and we are looking at establishing Urban Food Banks through support from the private sector, development partners and individuals who can also contribute food and cash. We are still exploring this initiative and we would like to work with local partners, stakeholders such as supermarkets, milling companies, the hotel sector, banks, development partners and others. All we are saying is that, we do have people blessed with more than what they need, why not donate some food to the bank for our urban poor who will appreciate that food, which you might end up throwing away. Supermarkets usually are desperate to sell some food-stuffs that are close to an expiry date and we are saying, why not donate the food before it has expired as one of your corporate social responsibility. We can provide food, in addition to other donated items such as clothes and toiletries. Rather than burning old clothes, why not donate them to the bank so that we can give to the needy. 

LT: Let’s talk about child marriages, an agenda that your ministry is very vocal about, how big is the problem in Lesotho and how can various actors contribute to your mission to end child marriages? 

MD: This has been a big problem in Lesotho for many years due to a number of factors, including some bad cultural practices that accept child marriage, such as Chobeliso. Many of the cases are reported in the mountainous regions with low numbers in the urban areas, sadly where you would expect people to have knowledge about the dangers of child marriage. Girls are forced into illegal marriages by various factors, some marry to escape conditions at home such as poverty, peer pressure that may lead to teenage pregnancies and in some cases, families facilitate these illegal marriages. We have heard heart- breaking stories told by some young mothers who were persuaded into marriages by their families because they were lied to that marriage was the best thing that can happen to a woman. Against this misinformation, we are now saying to all the girls, education is the best achievement for any girl in Lesotho and beyond.  Education empowers you to have a voice and to be able to contribute towards the upkeep of your family and the country.

To strengthen our advocacy messaging, it is also important that we present role models that can inspire our girls to understand that there is more to life than marriage and sex.

We have appointed Princess Senate to be Lesotho’s champion against child marriage, in an effort to present her as a role model all girls will look up to. As a girl, she will be able to easily speak on issues that affect fellow girls and inspire change, especially among girls from under-privileged families. We would like the girls to understand that through education they can change their temporary conditions.

We will need to also work with professional women from the areas we are targeting in our Anti-Child-Marriage campaigns. Female lawyers, teachers, executives and businesswomen from Thaba Tseka, Mokhotlong, Qacha’s Nek, Butha Buthe, Quthing and Mohale’s Hoek, you are the role models the girls want to see and look up to and to understand the importance of delaying marriage and focusing on their books.

This challenge demands multi-faceted actions by various actors. It is not for this Ministry of Social Development and Princess Senate alone, but we also need to strengthen our cooperation with our partners such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) to keep the child marriage momentum.

The first critical step is to ensure that all communities understand that child marriage is wrong and also a crime. It is wrong because it puts girls at risk of dying of pregnancy-related ailments or during child delivery. Many young mothers die during child birth because their bodies are not yet ready for the child bearing task. Due to lack of decent economic opportunities, in some cases, these same girls later abandon their children to become domestic workers in the neighbouring South Africa, after their marriages fall apart or when a husband dies.

As the ministry, we would like the laws of this country to bite and help us stop child marriages. We would the police and the courts to take tough actions against families that support child marriages and against men who impregnate children (girls).

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