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Tutu and Gumbonzvanda: Child marriage: Why African leaders should act now

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AFRICAN leaders have put ‘Women’s Empowerment and Development’ at the top of their agenda for the AU Summit in Addis Ababa. For this they must be warmly commended. But few have spelled out what that will mean in practical terms. With respect, we would like to offer a suggestion. Implementing national action plans to end child marriage would empower millions of girls and women here in Nigeria and across Africa and would remove a major hindrance to our continent’s future prosperity and wellbeing.

   It should no longer be a revelation that sub-Saharan Africa has some of the highest rates of girl child marriage in the world. Of the 20 highest prevalence countries, 15 are in Africa. In terms of absolute numbers, Nigeria is home to the third highest number of child brides in the world. These unions contravene both United Nations conventions and the African Charter on the Rights of the Child. They break the law in almost all African countries. Yet overall, 40 per cent of women in sub-Saharan Africa were married as children – roughly a quarter of them by the time they were 15.

   Child marriage is not based on religion or ethnicity. It occurs among Christians, Muslims, Hindus and numerous other ethnic and religious groups. We have met imams and priests who preach against child marriage and secular leaders who defend it. The greatest drivers of child marriage are poverty and tradition – which often manifests itself as a social pressure to conform. It is also deeply rooted in the low social value placed on girls, who are often perceived to be a burden, or a commodity. 

   In many societies, marriage may also be seen as a safer option for daughters, to protect them from rape or sexual assault. In fact the opposite is the case. Married girls are more vulnerable to forced sex and domestic violence than their unmarried peers. It is not sufficiently understood that complications in pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19. As very few married girls stay in school, child marriage also perpetuates illiteracy, poverty and disempowerment.

   It is only in the past few years that the world has woken up to the scale and impact of child marriage. Around the world today, some 700 million women were married as girls. These vast numbers of girls and women represent enormous waste of human potential that we simply cannot ignore.

   As more data is collected, African leaders are waking up to the facts too. They realise that policies and interventions that help girls to complete school and delay marriage can deliver significant development benefits, and boost national economic plans.  

   But leaders also need to understand that the time to act is now. While there is a gradual decline in child marriage – it is not fast enough. If we don’t accelerate the process of change, population growth means the number of child brides in Africa could double by 2050.

   Several African countries are taking action. The government of Egypt has developed a national strategy to prevent child marriage and promote young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. Ethiopia has included ending harmful traditional practices such as child marriage in its national transition plan to achieve middle-income country status by 2025. In 2013, Zambia launched a three-year national campaign against child marriage, spearheaded by the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs. In both Ethiopia and Zambia, the governments recognise the need to develop comprehensive national strategies to end child marriage.

   Africa’s First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS1 have also been consistently urging the continent’s leadership to revise the age of marriage to 18 for all girls, and to instigate a range of policies that would provide appropriate sex education, empowerment and rights. And of course, the African Union has launched a two-year campaign, encouraging all African governments to develop national strategies to raise awareness and address the harmful impact of child marriage.

   We have singled out a few countries and institutions whose leaders have shown vision and courage in addressing child marriage. Unfortunately they are relatively few. 

   As we begin 2015, we call on all Africa’s leaders to make the best investment they can in the future. By developing and implementing national action plans to end child marriage, which include protecting girls’ rights, enforcing or if necessary reforming the law, supporting girls to stay in school and working with families and communities to persuade them of the benefits of delaying marriage, they will recoup their investment many times over.

  If we want a prosperous and healthy continent, with equality of opportunity, we have to harness the talents of all our people. Girls in Nigeria and across Africa have the right to contribute and much to offer. Let’s not stifle their potential – let’s enable them to flourish and grow, and to take this magnificent continent with them.

• Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is former Chair of The Elders and co-founder of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda is the African Union Goodwill Ambassador for the AU Campaign to End Child Marriage and Secretary General of the World YWCA.


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