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State should be at the forefront of efforts to end child marriages

By Joshua Ongwae | November 17th 2021

Child marriage is a major violation of the rights of the girl child. This violation not only impacts negatively on girls but also on the lives of their children and communities.

According to a 2014 report by Unicef on ending child marriage, four in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa get married before 18. A 2021 report by the government and Population Council on the impact of Covid-19 on adolescents indicates that about 3 per cent (100,000 girls) of 15 to 19-year-olds got married in 2020 when schools were closed.

One third got married immediately after Covid-19 started with almost half (44 per cent) saying they got married because of pregnancy.

These are some of the challenges that the third Africa Girls Summit being hosted in Niger between November 16 and 18 will highlight. The summit will also touch on the status, opportunities and aspirations of the girl child. Most notably, stakeholders should capitalise to rally the continent against violation of girls’ rights, including child marriage.

Comparatively, child brides are more likely to drop out of school, experience domestic violence and child labour. Besides, they get children at an age when their bodies are not well developed to carry a pregnancy to term, hence predisposing them to health complications and even death. In addition, child brides are not well prepared to make decisions about their children which will continue the circle of inequality and injustice for generations to come.

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child explicitly states that “child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited” and urges for action, including legislation, to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years.

Other initiatives against child marriage include African Union Campaign against Child Marriage. Besides the ratification of international and regional policy frameworks, countries have developed laws that criminalise child marriage. In Kenya, such laws include the Children’s Act 2001 and the Marriage Act 2014.

But gaps in implementation abound. Governments have not fully allocated resources towards implementation of child protection policies, making it difficult to enforce them. Conflict between policy frameworks and cultural, religious and statutory laws is common.

Lack of proper sensitisation on the policy frameworks among duty bearers and the general population makes it difficult for girls and communities to act against child marriage. 

To end child marriage, there is need for government to adopt a multi-sectoral approach. Law enforcers, Judiciary, government ministries as well as children, parents, communities, civil society organisations and media should collaborate to ensure cases of child marriage are stopped, reported and proper action is taken.

Teenage pregnancy is one of the reasons child marriage happens. Governments should provide youth-friendly services where young people can access reproductive health services.  

Joshua Ongwae, Africa Region Advocacy Manager, ChildFund International.

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