Hauwa was just 14 years old when she married a 22-year-old man to escape the grinding poverty at home. “We had a large family, with two wives and 11 children, and my father could not always provide food for us,” she told me at her homestead in the rural village of Sankalawa in northern Nigeria’s Zamfara state.
The first few weeks of her stay with her husband was peaceful, she says, but things soon took a different turn when she complained that her husband was not meeting her needs.
“He would beat me whenever I complained, and I couldn’t do anything. But then things became worse, so I ran back home,” Hauwa said, not looking up.
Hauwa’s story is common across Africa, where millions of teenage girls are married off even before they turn 18. Although child marriage is a major concern globally, rates remain higher in developing countries.
Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday, with about 250 million entering into a union before age 15, according to United Nations Children’s Agency (Unicef). Unicef said one in three young women in Africa were married or in a union by age 18.
The high cost of child marriage
Child marriage undermines the child’s rights to health, education, non-discrimination, consensual marriage and to live free from violence and discrimination. It also compromises a girl’s development, disrupts her schooling and limits her opportunities for career and vocational advancement.
Girls who marry as children are more likely to leave education early, suffer greater risk of domestic and sexual violence, contract HIV/AIDS and die due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth, which has been identified by the World Health Organisation as a leading cause of death among adolescent girls in developing countries. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) says early childbearing is linked to obstetric fistula, adding that teenage mothers are more likely to have children with low birth weight, inadequate nutrition and anaemia. Fistula often leads to social isolation and leaves women incontinent.
The first ever African Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa
African leaders have not been silent about this issue. In late November 2015, the African Union organised the first ever African Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa in the Zambian capital Lusaka, with the hopes of creating a platform to “share experiences and good practices” and figure out challenges on ending child marriage on the continent. In the end, leaders agreed to an eight-year campaign to end child marriage.
“We must end child marriage and educate the girl child so that they can attain their full potential. Girls who end up as brides at a tender age are coerced into having children while they are children themselves,” said the then AU chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, when she addressed the Summit participants in a recorded video. “Child marriage generates norms that have become increasingly difficult to exterminate – norms that undermine the value of our women.”
But nearly two years after the campaign, which saw African leaders enacting and implementing laws that set the minimum marriage age at 18, progress is too slow. Unicef estimates that the number of married girls in Africa could rise from 125 million to 310 million by 2050, largely because of the slow rates of reduction coupled with rapid population growth.
“The sheer number of girls affected – and what this means in terms of lost childhoods and shattered futures – underline the urgency of banning the practice of child marriage once and for all,” Unicef Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement.
More than 40 African countries have adopted legislation aimed at ending early marriage, with Zimbabwe, Chad, Tanzania and The Gambia outlawing the practice last year. However, the laws in some of these countries contain provisions that allowed children to marry with parental consent or judicial approval and under customary law or other circumstances (such as if they were pregnant).
Despite the laws against it, early marriage cannot be completely reduced if the main drivers such as poverty, poor access to education, weak justice systems, customary practices and religious belief that fuel the practice are not taken into consideration. For example, in Malawi, families who marry off their children see it as a way to repay a debt or improve their finances. In South Sudan, families see their daughters as sources of wealth because they receive dowry payment after the marriage has been sealed.
With girls themselves seeing marriage as a way out of poverty, it becomes rather difficult to fix this issue without finding solutions that would help end extreme poverty in impoverished communities across the continent. This explains why the practice is prevalent in rural areas across Africa, where families in poor communities tend to marry off daughters because they cannot afford to raise them.
The lack of national coordination has often undermined laws trying to curb early marriage. In some countries, including Nigeria, the government leaves the responsibility of addressing the problem with the ministry of gender and women affairs. How can a big problem be tackled head on when it is only seen as a gender issue?
Addressing child marriage requires a multi-step approach, particularly improving livelihoods for families and promoting community awareness through community meetings and the engagement of religious and traditional leaders in order for them to understand and commit to their respective roles in ending child marriage.
Access to education is crucial
African governments must also improve access to decent education as well as sexual and reproductive health information and services. It is also important to support girl’s education with cost-effective efforts, such as providing girls with school supplies or uniforms. But less progress would be made if harmful social norms are not addressed through awareness campaigns.
Another vital strategy is the use of Safe Spaces Girls’ Groups, where girls can have access to friendships with other girls and adult female mentors. Through these groups, girls can easily receive health information and life skills. The groups also serve as a link to basic human rights that they are entitled to, such as health services.
A major drawback to ongoing efforts aimed at ending early marriage is that minimum age requirements are ignored in some countries, regardless of the legal frameworks backing these requirements. This calls for national measures to enforce such laws and impose penalties as and when due. Nothing would serve as a better deterrent than punishment.
On the whole, African governments need to combine forces and share national approaches to help each other fix the social ill of child marriage.