Ending child marriage: A call to action 

Christiana Volamena, 15, with her child in Antananarivo, Madagascar. In her country, most of the girls with no education marry early as the some others have to work in order to support their families. Picture: Getty Images

The first step in empowering women is by stopping the practice of celebrating the birth of a boy, while mourning that of a girl, and this will go a long way toward stopping the scourge of child marriages in Africa and elsewhere.

The International Day of the Girl Child has been commemorated globally every year on 11 October since 2012 to highlight the injustices girls face based on their gender, while advancing the fulfilment of their rights, development and wellbeing.

The United Nations theme for the International Day of the Girl Child 2020 is “My voice, our equal future”. There is a specific emphasis on the girl child, because there is a direct form of discrimination against girls who are often deprived of their fundamental human rights.

Millions of girls are discriminated against from birth, on the grounds of sex and gender.

This year, as we commemorate the International Day of the Girl Child, it is important to bring to the world’s attention child marriage, which continues to be an unending anathema that serves as a challenge in the fulfilment and enjoyment of the rights and welfare of the girl child.

Child marriage is the marriage of a child before he or she turns 18 years old. It is a global phenomenon that continues to obstruct the wellbeing of young boys and girls.

Child marriage affects both boys and girls, but nine in 10 children married off before they turn 18 years old are girls. Every two seconds, a girl is married off, before she is physically, psychologically or emotionally developed enough to become a bride or mother.

An estimated 650 million women and girls in the world today were married before they turned 18 years and one-third of these women and girls were married off before they turned 15 years old. According to United Nations International Children Emergency Fund, out of the world’s population, 1.1 billion are girls and 22 millions of them are married off before they attain adulthood.

Next to Asia, Africa has the highest prevalence of child marriage, a decadence deeply rooted in society and an atrocity that is a major impediment to regional development and prosperity. It is believed that “if current trends continue, almost half of the world’s child brides in 2050 will be African”.

The United Nations Child Rights Convention (CRC) which guarantees the rights of children, is the most ratified treaty in the world, ratified by 196 countries excluding the United States of America and Africa’s newest state – South Sudan.

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) which deals with peculiar human rights challenges affecting children in Africa has been ratified by 49 out of the 55 countries in Africa. The CRC and the ACRWC recognise non-discrimination, devotion to the best interests of the child, the specific needs and rights of the child, as well as respect for the views of the child.

Even countries that have signed, ratified and domesticated the CRC, ACRWC and other international instruments on the promotion and protection of the rights of the child, fail to comply with the implementation of these instruments and policies because of gender-discriminatory norms, socio-cultural practices, tradition, custom and religion.

Gender discriminatory norms, for example, have marked a female child as inferior to a male child. The birth of a male child is celebrated with great splendour and ardour, while the birth of a female child is received with disappointment because she is seen as a burden when compared to her male counterpart.

Be it education, health, basic services, protection, participation, inclusion, the girl child is always treated unequally.

Unfortunately, girls are led to believe that their goal in life is to cook, clean, serve and please their husbands as well as bear children.

This is unfathomable in the 21st century, where we have strong female leaders who have made landmark strides in systems completely dominated by men, such as Chimamanda Adichie, a prolific and award-winning author; President Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia; Amina J Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations; former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who is currently vying for the position of the director-general of the World Trade Organisation and may very well become the first female leader of the institution in its 25 years of existence.

The effects of child marriage on the girl child

Child marriage affects the education of a girl child, as she is forced to take care of her husband and children. Consequently, these girls are unable to go to school or continue their education, and their financial freedom becomes hindered.

This leaves them in a constant state of abject poverty and perhaps raise a generation of women and girls that continue to live below the minimum wage.

Also, child brides are prone to domestic violence. The International Council of Research on Women contends that girls between the ages of 15 and 19 with little or no education are at a higher chance of being violated than older and educated women.

In addition, child brides suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

These girls are made to live with their husbands and in solitude away from their families and friends. Child brides are more prone to HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted infections, as they are unable to discuss contraceptives with their husbands. Child brides are also likely to suffer complications from early or teenage pregnancy, sometimes leading to death.

About 70 000 girls die each year due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth. These girls also suffer from miscarriage, obstetric fistula, and postpartum haemorrhaging.

Aspiration 6 of the African Union Agenda 2063 and Goal 5 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030 sets target on ending child marriages. However, child marriage continues to rob the girl child of her opportunity to grow, learn, be empowered and develop to her full potential as child marriage makes the girl child dependant, trapping them in a perpetual cycle of poverty.

Conclusion

We must all come together to end child marriage.

The birth of a female child must be celebrated with equal zeal as that of a male child. There must be community ownership and duty in eliminating child marriage.

There must be sensitisation programmes that would create attitudinal shifts towards gender equality and the mainstreaming of the rights and wellbeing of the female child.

We must continually launch national awareness campaign against child marriage by highlighting the dangers of child marriage on the child, family, society, nation and the world at large.

Girls need to be empowered through the provision of information on sexual and reproductive health, support networks, career guidance, role modelling and mentorship programmes. School curriculum needs to eliminate gender roles and education must be inclusive.

There has to be state accountability to implement laws, policies, schemes, constitutional and international commitments on gender equality as well as institutionalising gender-sensitive laws and programmes within the national systems.

Girls want a world where everyone has equal rights and opportunities; a world without patriarchy; a world where she can voice her opinions in her environment and be heard in decisions that affect her life; a world where she is not marginalised, stigmatised or victimised.

Girls want to have access to equal opportunities to learn, grow and prosper as their male counterpart. In this world, she is equal and gender equality is the standard.

We must end child marriage now to protect her rights and wellbeing and safeguard her future and the future of the world.

Mary Izobo

  • Mary Izobo is an International Human Rights Lawyer and Gender Advocate

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