Africa will benefit from bringing an end to child marriage

PHOTOS: Desmond Tutu and Mabel van Oranje visit Zambia to encourage end child marriage efforts
Photo: Girls Not Brides

AFRICAN leaders have put “women’s empowerment and development” at the top of their agenda for the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa. For this, they must be warmly commended, but few have spelt out what that will mean in practical terms.

We would like to offer a suggestion. Implementing national action plans to end child marriage would empower millions of girls and women and 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 countries with the highest prevalence of this deplorable practice, 15 are in Africa.

Here in SA, cases of ukuthwala — a practice where girls are abducted into marriage — still occur. These unions contravene both United Nations (UN) conventions and the African Charter on the Rights of the Child. They break the law in almost all African countries. Yet overall, 40% 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 manifest as 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 also 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 among women.

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, about 700-million women were married as girls. These vast numbers of girls and women represent an enormous waste of human potential that we simply cannot ignore.

As more data are 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 the Southern African Development Community, Zambia has launched a three-year national campaign against child marriage, spearheaded by the ministry of chiefs and traditional affairs.

The Organisation of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS has 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 for them. The AU has launched a two-year campaign, encouraging all African governments to develop national strategies to raise awareness and address the harmful effects 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. They can do this by developing and implementing national action plans to end child marriage. Such plans should include protecting girls’ rights, enforcing or reforming laws, 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 as well as boys have the right to contribute and have 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.

• Tutu is former chairman of The Elders and co-founder of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage. Gumbonzvanda is the AU goodwill ambassador for the AU Campaign to End Child Marriage and secretary-general of the World YWCA.

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Article: Business Day Live

Article by: Desmond Tutu & Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda