The terrible practice of child marriage is still very common in Africa. Many poor parents see girls as a burden, marry them off by 12 or 13 and send them to live with their husbands' families. The International Center for Research on Women reports that one third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15. Many are little more than servants in their new homes and often bear children while still children themselves. Unable to read and write, unprepared to care for their children and unaware of their rights, they are easily exploited and abused, and destined for lives of deep, continuing poverty. The African Exponent explores five ways to end this shameful practice.
1. Educate girls
Many studies have shown that it is more likely that a girl who marries as a child will come from a society where education for girls is not valued. She will probably be illiterate and will have little to no understanding of her human rights. Girls having access to both primary and secondary education will improve their chances of access to employment and a means of sustaining themselves and then in turn their families. It is important to reach out to societies and help challenge traditional and discriminatory views on access to education. Tostan, a women’s human rights non-profit based in Senegal, is an inspirational example of an organization that has outreach programs which educate community elders and lawmakers about the importance of educating young girls.
2. Empower Girls
In many countries where child marriage is widespread, girls are often seen as economic burdens. Girls in households where boys are favored often have low self-esteem and little confidence. Empowerment programs for young girls are key to preventing early marriages by improving their self-efficacy. This can be achieved by informing girls of their basic human rights, their legal right to refuse a marriage, and education programs on health and sex education. Additionally, empowering girls, by offering them opportunities to gain skills and education, providing support networks and creating ‘safe spaces’ where girls can gather and meet outside the home, can help them to assert their right to choose when they marry. In Kenya, The Girls’ Empowerment Project (GEP) allows young refugee women and girls, generally 13-23 years of age, to access education and livelihood opportunities, learn about their human rights and to cultivate leadership skills. To date the GEP has served 210 young women.
3. Educate Parents
Some parents from very traditional communities believe that child marriage is a way of protecting their daughter: providing for her economically so she will be taken care of; shielding her from harassment and sexual violence before she reaches adolescence, and preventing premarital sex which is still taboo in many countries. Unfortunately, families often do not know the detrimental effects of early child marriages. Pregnancy at a very tender age can lead to many complications as a girl’s body will not be ready for childbirth. Education will benefit such parents on the very harmful effects of forced early childhood marriage. In Zambia, Chief Nzamane of the Mfumbeni tribe works with the parents of girls who are at risk of being sold for lucrative dowries. He understands the financial pressures on families and finds way to help them stay financially secure without needing to force their daughters, in his words, into “lifelong trauma.”
4. Support Legislation Against Child Marriage
One of the most powerful tools that anti-child marriage organizations and women’s rights advocates have been campaigning for is to make child marriage illegal by raising the legal age of marriage. In Algeria, the minimum age of marriage for females is 18, which is quite acceptable. Some countries however have very low minimum legal age of marriage; Sudan having the lowest of 10. What do you do if you live in a country like Sudan? You can start by supporting efforts to get legislation passed by participating in community campaigning activities such as petitions and demonstrations. In cases where the legislation is already in place but still facing trouble gaining traction over entrenched traditions, you can help prevent child marriage by notifying the relevant authorities or agencies about any child marriages being facilitated.
5. Provide Relevant Economic Support
Inter-generational poverty is often the most common reason given for forcing girls into early marriage. Parents may know about the harmful effects of child marriage, but may be compelled to marry off their daughters. Some believe that the dowry payment from the marriage of an older sister might be essential in ensuring the survival of younger children and the whole family. Providing economic support to families may be a way of assisting parents who do not want their daughters to get married early. The Berwan Hewane project in Ethiopia found that providing a family with a goat or a sheep for refusing to marry off an underaged daughter helped parents stand firm on that decision. In certain cultures and communities, this provision of livestock can mean the difference in the survival and longevity of a family. This much-needed resource, when given to a low income family, gives them more options, including refusing to marry off under-aged daughters.
(Image Credit: womenalliance.org)