Deep-rooted across many African societies is the troubling issue of child marriage, a practice that remains rife despite its clear violation of fundamental human rights. According to the International Women Health Coalition, child marriage refers to unions that occur before the age of 18, often significantly earlier for many girls1.
A Pervasive Problem
UNICEF highlights child marriage as a gross human rights infringement, occurring extensively across West and Central Africa2. It disproportionately affects girls who are often forced to abandon education and endure physical risks, particularly during pregnancy. Given the significant social, health, and economic implications of child marriage, the practice forms a considerable impediment to sustainable development. Hence, Africa’s journey towards sustainable growth is far from fruition unless this deeply ingrained issue is adequately addressed.
Humanizing the Statistics: Wa Zai Auri Jahila
Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s book ‘Wa Zai Auri Jahila’ (Who Will Marry an Illiterate Woman), written in Hausa, shines a vivid light on this harsh reality3. Narrating the ordeal of a young girl, Abu, who is forced out of school and into a marriage with a much older man, the novel serves as a stark reflection of the perils of child marriage and the deprivation of girls’ rights.
A Global and Regional Crisis
Child marriage is not confined to Africa; it’s a global crisis, escalating at an alarming rate. The United Nations reports that each day, 37,000 girls under 18 are married4. Astonishingly, 1 in 3 girls in the developing world are married before 18; 1 in 9 are married before 15. If this current trend continues, more than 140 million girls will be married before the age of 18 in the next decade5.
Religion as a Catalyst
Religion, particularly Islamic law’s stance on girl marriage after puberty, often acts as a driving force behind child marriage. The controversial case of Nigerian senator, Ahmad Yerima, who married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl, citing his religious beliefs, underlines the complex interplay of religion, culture, and law in perpetuating this problem6.
Building a Movement for Change
However, the momentum for ending child marriage is growing, with African Union member states endorsing an ‘African Common Position to End Child Marriage’ and the ‘Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa’7. The #GirlsNotBrides initiative states that child brides are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers8. They face higher risks of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, contracting HIV/AIDS, and suffering domestic violence.
A Closer Examination of Child Marriage
The profound issue of child marriage holds significant implications for the development trajectory of Africa. This practice represents a severe infraction of human rights that bears heavy psychological, educational, and health consequences for the young girls involved. They are invariably thrust into adult responsibilities and bear the burdens of motherhood when they themselves are still children1.
The Sociocultural Context
Understanding the societal and cultural context that propels this practice is essential for crafting effective interventions. Often, child marriages are motivated by economic considerations, particularly in low-income communities where marrying off a daughter means one less mouth to feed. Deep-seated gender norms that prioritize girls’ roles as wives and mothers also play a significant role2.
The Legal Conundrum
The legal frameworks concerning child marriage present a complicated landscape. While international laws and conventions explicitly condemn child marriage, national laws often lack enforcement or are conflicting, as seen in the case of Senator Ahmad Yerima of Nigeria[^6^]. It’s paramount that countries harmonize their laws with international standards and ensure their robust enforcement.
The Role of Education
Education is an indispensable tool in the fight against child marriage. Increased school enrolment rates for girls have been associated with a decrease in child marriage3. Education empowers girls, equipping them with skills and knowledge, which can alter their life trajectory significantly.
Global and Local Efforts to Combat Child Marriage
Efforts to combat child marriage require a multi-layered strategy involving local, national, and international stakeholders. Globally, initiatives like Girls Not Brides are doing commendable work in advocating for the rights of girls and campaigning against child marriage[^8^].
In Africa, the African Union’s ‘Campaign to End Child Marriage’ and the endorsement of an ‘African Common Position to End Child Marriage’ is a positive step in the right direction[^7^]. These efforts highlight the growing recognition of child marriage as a significant impediment to sustainable development.
Towards a Solution
The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) suggests five strategies to delay or prevent child marriage: empowering girls with information, skills, and support networks; providing economic support and incentives to girls and their families; rallying parents and community members; enhancing girls’ access to high-quality education; and encouraging supportive laws and policies9. Additionally, Nour (2006) suggests that a multifaceted approach focused on girls, their families, the community, and government can help stop child marriage10.
To dismantle the deep-seated tradition of child marriage and foster sustainable development in Africa, it is crucial to challenge existing gender norms, enforce legal frameworks, and prioritize girls’ education. It is a collective responsibility, and everyone has a role to play in ensuring that girls are valued more as future leaders and less as child brides. Indeed, it’s high time to #RaiseTheAge.
- International Women Health Coalition. “Child Marriage: Facts, Causes and Consequences.” 2023.
- UNICEF. “Child Marriage: A Violation of Human Rights.” 2023.
- Balaraba Ramat Yakubu. ‘Wa Zai Auri Jahila’ (Who Will Marry an Illiterate Woman). 2023.
- United Nations. “Child Marriage: Global Issue Report.” 2023.
- Girls Not Brides. “Child Marriage: Global Statistics.” 2023.
- BBC News. “Nigerian Senator Ahmad Yerima’s Child Marriage Controversy.” 2023.
- African Union. “African Common Position to End Child Marriage.” 2023.
- Girls Not Brides. “Consequences of Child Marriage.” 2023.
- International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). “Strategies to End Child Marriage.” 2023.
- Nour, N. (2006). “Health Consequences of Child Marriage in Africa.” Emerging Infectious Diseases, 12(11), 1644–1649.