Child marriage is a global phenomenon. UNICEF defines “child marriage” as the percentage of women 20-24 years of age who were first married or in a union before they were 18 years old. It is practiced across cultures, religion, ethnicity and race in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, South Asia and Europe. One in three girls are said to be married before they turn 18. The top 20 countries where child marriage is prevalent are: Niger (76%), Central African Republic (68%), Chad (68%), Mali (55%), Bangladesh (52%), Guinea (52%) South Sudan (52%), Burkina Faso (52%), Malawi (50%), Mozambique (48%), India (47%), Somalia (45%), Nigeria (43%), Eritrea (41%), Ethiopia (41%), Madagascar (41%), Nicaragua (41%), Uganda (40%), Sierra Leone (39%) and Cameroon (38%). It is estimated that about 700 million women alive today were given in marriage when they were children (under 18 years of age), of which 17% of these women (about 125 million) live in Africa. Driven by factors including poverty, insecurity and religious traditions, marrying off girls once they reach puberty or even before then is a deeply ingrained social custom in Africa, South of the Sahara. Approximately 39% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before the age of 18. Why is Africa leading the world in child marriage?
There are various reasons for child marriage Africa. The defunct tradition that girls are supposed to get married early and bear children is still alive. Parents may marry off their daughter due to poverty or out of fear for their safety. Some parents feel ashamed if no one comes to give their daughters “hand in marriage.” Although there have been efforts to empower girls through education and career development, gender inequality and the low value placed on girls are still prevalent and underlie child marriage. Child marriage is also prevalent in countries that have experienced multiple protracted humanitarian crises, particularly civil war leading to displacement of people, terrorist attacks, such as, the Chibok school girls kidnapping in Northern Nigeria, and drought in the Sahel region of Africa.
What does this mean to our sisters, daughters, nieces and cousins in Africa? It means we are moving one hundred years backwards. It means Africans are not acting in concert with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed at banishing a whole host of social ills that affect humankind. On the list of these social ills are to: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women. Giving young girls to older men in marriage is not empowerment. It is slave trade by other means.
The drumbeat to end child marriage worldwide is louder now than ever before. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is leading the fight against child marriage with resolutions to galvanize international collaborative action against child marriage. On 19 December 2016, the UNGA adopted a second resolution on child marriage at its 71st Session. The resolution was co-sponsored by Zambia and Canada, supported by more than 100-member states. It is gratifying that an African country (Zambia) co-sponsored this resolution. While Zambia may not be speaking for the whole of Africa, it is hoped that Africans, from the village level to the cities and to those in the diaspora would join the global community to end child marriage.
Girls did not ask to be born. They should be given equal rights as boys in education and above all, that inalienable right to make choices on matters that affect them. Girls should be in school till adulthood and not forced into marriage to well-to-do men. There are enormous benefits for both individual girls and societies at large where girls are allowed to go to school and complete their education. Education and training bring an end to “home-making” career traditionally assigned to women, and empowers girls to venture into non-traditional, non-farming employment. From the World Bank perspective, child marriage hampers global efforts to reduce poverty and population growth and has negative impacts on women's and children's health, educational achievements, and earning capacity. Most of the maternal and child health problems experienced by young mothers would be reduced, with greater benefit to the society.
International laws or resolutions are empty promises unless enforced. It is contended that the fight against child marriage should start at the family and village levels. Family members and the girls themselves should be at the forefront of this fight against the archaic custom of child marriage. Regrettably, African governmental institutions are dominated by “traditionalists,” who will do all they can to maintain status quo in the name of custom or religion. The government has a greater role to play in terms of legal and policy changes, strengthening social systems and providing services, working with families, communities and the girls themselves to change the social norms impinged upon girls’ human rights.