“Every two seconds, a girl is married before she is physically and emotionally mature enough to become a wife or a mother. Globally, 720 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. Every year, they are joined by another 15 million child brides – the equivalent of the entire population of Mali or Zimbabwe,” so runs the introduction to Ending Child Marriage in Africa, a report by Girls Not Brides. Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of more than 500 civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage. Child marriage has been a fierce adversary of gender equality and African development for a long time despite different commitments by African States to put measures against it. The reality of the matter is Africa is still a long way from fighting off child marriages.
The International Center for Research on Women reports that a third of girls in the developing world are married before 18 while one in nine girls is married before 15. ICRW estimates that 150 million girls will be married before 18 in the next decade, translating to an average of 15 million as confirmed by the Girls Not Brides report. This is a global problem but Africa is at the heart of it with 15 countries of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriages being African countries. Niger finds itself on top of the rankings with a ridiculously high 76% of girls married before the age of 18. Just as well, more than half of the girls in Chad, Central African Republic, Guinea and Mozambique are married by 18. As a result, girls between 15 and 19 are said to be 2 to 6 times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age. One reason may be that they cannot exercise sexual discretion as their husbands who are normally older and more sexually experienced demand sex from them without regard to how they (the girls) feel about it.
In 2010, the case of Yemeni girl, Elham Mahdi al Assi caught the attention of the world and exposed the gruesome details of child-marriages. Elham had been married off to a man double her age at 13 only to die 5 days after their wedding. Her death was a result of severe bleeding caused by tears to her anal and genital area. She had complained that her husband tied her up and raped her. Though not an African story, hers helped to shine the light on the secret lives of child brides the world over. These young children are victims of rape and domestic violence but they are forced to keep it to themselves. Their stories are only heard when they die or are seriously assaulted. Most of the time their families are in cahoots with the perpetrators of the crimes thus clogging every escape route. In worse cases, whole communities institutionalise the molestation. Where other nations would call the practice of sex with underage girls paedophilia (and statutory rape in others), Niger only uses the word in cases where men sleep with underage girls outside marriage.
“Here we only talk about paedophilia when sex happens outside of marriage,” Idrissa Djibrilla, head of the Niger unit of the Non-Governmental Organization, Defence for Children International said to IRIN News.
The causes of child marriages in Africa have mainly been identified as being poverty and tradition. Girls Not Brides argues that, “Where poverty is acute, parents may feel that giving a daughter in marriage will reduce family expenses, or even temporarily increase their increase their income, in cases where a bride’s parents are paid a bride price.”
Indeed this is a fact hard to refute as The Borgen Project, a national campaign in the USA working to improve response to poverty reported that, “Approximately one in three people living in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished.”
It is sad that child marriages are now being used to fund-raise and avoid hunger but for people in the deep end of the situation, they feel they have run out of options. Child marriage is their lifeline. However, speaking at the launch of the National Ending Child Marriage Campaign in Tanzania, Graca Machel, widow of Nelson Mandela asserted that “this poverty issue cannot be an excuse for marrying off children”. This was after she had told her story of how her family protected her though it was very poor. She is also heard to have said, “Traditions are made by people… we can change them”. The situation is a little more complex than it might seem. People are not as willing to let go of what they consider their culture yet in reality the culture is born out of selfish needs and misplaced beliefs that the girl child is an asset with high returns.
A report by the ICRW identified five strategies to prevent child marriages: empowering girls with information, skills and support networks, educating and rallying parents and community members, improving girls’ access to high quality education, providing economic support and incentives to girls and their families and encouraging supportive laws and policies. Unfortunately, the law has not been able to fully protect African young girls from child marriages. Human Rights Watch reports that at least 20 African countries allow girls to marry below the age of 18. Of those that have laws barring child marriages, corruption defeats the ends of justice leaving girls in a quandary. This has given rise to situations like that of then fourteen year old Nigerian girl, Wasila Umaru who took the law into her own hands and poisoned her thirty-five year old husband and three of his friends. If the law protects young girls fully, they will not be dragged into the pits of desperation, helplessness and ultimately murder.
Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court in the January of 2016 outlawed child marriages which had been instruments of injustice as they set the legal age for marriage at 16 for females and 18 for males. The reason for this difference is not known but it lies somewhere in the prejudices of gender bias. However, now that child marriages have been declared unlawful, one can only imagine a brighter future for Zimbabwean girls. If countries can at least compound restrictive laws with education of the girl child, child marriages and the institutionalized suppression of the African woman may be eradicated soon. Educating the girl child has never meant more for Africa.