Child marriage in Africa: now action must follow the good intentions

A 14-year-old child bride in the village of Kanduku, Malawi, holds her baby Picture: Human Rights Watch

Confidence was just 14 when she was married to a man aged 42 in Zimbabwe.

“He used to beat me and shout at me,” she said. “He refused to let me continue with school.”

Confidence, now 22, told Human Rights Watch: “Child marriage ruined my life. Now I do not work and cannot find a job because I stopped going to school.”

Her story is familiar across Africa – home to 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40% of girls marry before they are 18 – and if current trends continue, the number of child brides there will more than double from 125 million to 310 million by 2050.

Girls who marry too young often have very little education and no future opportunities for schooling, as well as being at risk of violence and serious health problems.

Many of the contininent’s leaders recognise action has to be taken. The first African Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage was held by the African Union on November 26 and 27 in Lusaka, Zambia – attended by First Ladies, government officials, United Nations agencies, civil society and youth leaders.

The summit talked about eliminating child marriage by 2030, ending the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) and focusing on keeping girls in education beyond the age of 18.

But many advocates now believe real action must follow the encouraging words.

The charity Girls Not Brides said in a statement: “We believe the African Union, as well as national governments, must develop and implement detailed plans aimed at turning their commitments into concrete change in the lives of married girls and girls at risk of marriage.

“Unfortunately, the summit did not enable participants to agree on concrete, specific and collective next steps … to implement at community, national and regional levels.”

The Human Rights Watch report titled Ending Child Marriage in Africa – released ahead of International Human Rights Day yesterday – called on African governments to coordinate action to improve laws, education, health care and public awareness to end the scourge of child marriage.

The report shows how child marriage has dire lifelong consequences – often severely reducing a girl’s ability to realise a wide range of human rights. Marrying early often ends a girl’s education, exposes her to domestic and sexual violence, increases serious health risks and death from early childbearing and HIV, and traps her in poverty.

Agnes Odhiambo, senior Africa women’s rights researcher at HRW, said: “Government leaders across Africa often say the right things about child marriage, but have yet to produce the political commitment, resources, and on-the-ground help that could end this harmful practice.”

Roland Angerer, Plan International’s Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, was at the Lusaka conference. He said: “It is essential that we promote education and encourage dialogue if we want to change social norms and attitudes that perpetuate child marriage.

“Education is one of the most significant factors for delaying the age that girls marry. Governments must ensure schools are accessible, inclusive and safe, with good quality teaching materials, to enable more girls to attend and stay on in school.”

Learn more about how child marriage affects girls’ education.