Ending child marriage in Africa – What could be done?

by Christopher Dapaah
Excerpt from Global Newsletter - September 2016

In many African countries communities have increasingly recognized child marriage as a serious challenge. Child marriage disproportionately affects young girls, who are much more likely to be married as children compared to young boys. For many of these girls marriage before the age of 18 or younger is a personal, life-changing tragedy having a devastating and long-lasting impact.

Evidence exists that worldwide more than 700 million women alive today were married as children. 17% of them, or 125 million, live in Africa (UNICEF, 2016).

Approximately 39% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before the age of 18, and 12% before the age of 15. All African countries are faced with the challenge of child marriage, whether they experience high child marriage prevalence, such as Niger (76%) or lower rates like Algeria (3%). Child marriage is widespread in West and Central Africa (42%), as well as in Eastern and Southern Africa. There are 17 African countries on the list of 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage (UNICEF, 2016). But it is not only an African problem—countries like Bangladesh, India and Nicaragua are also on the list, and many other developing countries are also facing this major challenge. Apart from the above mentioned countries, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico are among the 10 countries with the highest absolute number of child brides (UNICEF, 2016).

The sheer scale of the problem has generated a range of policy interventions to address it. Many programs recognize the multitude of factors driving the persistence of child marriage, and are trying integrated approaches that engage communities, families and policymakers, while attempting to improve girls’ education and skills, and therefore their opportunities and empowerment.

Several international human rights agreements condemn child marriage, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). All call for the designation of child marriage as a harmful practice, and protection for the rights of children from all forms of child abuse.

Early marriage leads to early childbearing, with significantly higher maternal mortality and morbidity rates, as well as higher infant mortality rates. Having many pregnancies at an early age is dangerous for both mother and child, as young mothers bodies are usually not mature enough to carry a baby. Moreover, child marriage has negative effects on girls’ education and life opportunities; often such marriage virtually puts an end to a girl’s education.

Child marriage passes the cycle of poverty, poor health, and low education from one generation to the next. Girls from poor families are more likely than girls from wealthier families to become child brides. The girls who marry young are usually not empowered to make important health decisions, such as practicing modern contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Lack of education limits a girl’s vision and understanding of the trade-offs, and without skills, mobility, and connections, she is constrained in her ability to overcome poverty for herself, her children, or her family. Young girls married to older men with reckless sexual behavior are also at greater risk of STIs, including HIV infection, having no power to change anything for the better.

National and international indicators on maternal health, education, food security, poverty eradication, HIV/AIDS, and gender inequality are all negatively linked with high child marriage rates. In fact, child marriage undermines global targets to reduce poverty worldwide.

DRIVERS

The causes of child marriage are common across Africa. “Parents may marry off their daughter owing to poverty or out of fear for their safety. Tradition and the stigma of straying from traditions perpetuate child marriage in many communities. Crucially, gender inequality and the low value placed on girls underlie the practice.” (See: http://www.girlsnotbrides.org/where-does-it-happen)

The specifics and the gravity of the situation often differ within the country. For example, the rate of child marriage in Upper East Region of Ghana currently stands at 38%, Upper West region recorded 39%, Northern region- 36%, Western region-37%, Brong Ahafo region recorded 32%, Volta region- 33%, Central region has 26%, and Ashanti region recorded 19%. The urban areas and major cities are in better shape: Greater Accra region and Eastern regions recorded the lowest rate of child marriage, each with 11%. This clearly shows that more sensitization and awareness needs to be carried out, most especially in the regions with the highest rate of child marriage prevalence, and solutions need to be localised. In rural areas, the situation remains worrisome—at least a third of women in Ghana villages were married as children.

Despite most African countries setting the legal age for marriage at 18 years, laws are rarely enforced, since the practice of marrying young children is upheld by tradition and social norms. As mentioned above, child marriage is deeply rooted in poverty, gender inequality, persistent gender-based violence and gender discrimination. Unfortunately, it is upheld by some traditions and culture. The practice is most common in rural areas, where prospects for girls can be limited. In many cases, parents arrange these marriages, and young girls have no choice. Consequently, some societies believe that early marriage will protect young girls from sexual attacks and violence and they see it as a way to insure that, their daughters will not become pregnant out of wedlock and bring “dishonour to the family”. Among African countries, Niger — a least developed country — presents a vivid example of the detrimental impact of child marriage, having the highest

rate of child marriage in the world, where 3 in 4 girls marry before their 18th birthday. Poverty is a major driver of child marriage in Niger, when poor parents seek economic improvements and an increase in social status at the expense of their girl brides.

In some areas of the country, the rates are even higher: in the region of Diffa, 89% of girls marry as children. The link between the lack of education and the prevalence of child marriage is particularly evident in Niger: 81% of women aged 20-24 with no education and 63% of those with only primary education were married or in union at age 18, compared to only 17% of women with secondary education or higher (UNICEF, 2016).

Given these exceptionally high rates, recent research from the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) and the World Bank suggests that ending child marriage in Niger could save the country more than $25 billion in the next 15 years. (See: http://www.icrw.org/events/early-findings-economic-impacts-child-marriage-study-november-19)

Child marriage not only increases social isolation but also traps girls into a cycle of poverty and gender inequality, apart from the severe health complications. High maternal mortality and morbidity are prevalent among child brides. Child brides have a higher risk of dying from complication of pregnancy such as haemorrhage or they may develop obstetric fistula, which, in turn, has a significant negative health, social and psychological impact on their lives.

Child brides often face a higher risk of contracting HIV, because they often marry an older man with unclear sexual history and promiscuous behaviour. Child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress, such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.

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