Change the face of Africa by ending child marriage

Wednesday 4 February 2015

John Graham, Country Director of Save the Children in Ethiopia

By John Graham

African leaders are gathering here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, this week, to discuss pressing issues in the continent and chart out the path to a better future for the people of Africa.

The African Union Summit, which is underway under the theme “Women's Empowerment Year and Africa Development for the Concretisation of Agenda 2063 ” is also expected to put child marriage as one of its key agendas. 

According to UNFPA, between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides. If present trends continue, the number of child marriages which were 14.2 million in 2010, will be over 14 per cent higher by 2030, to nearly 15.1 million.  Although child marriage has adverse effects on girls and boys, girls are disproportionately impacted. Today, 720 million women were married off as children, compared to 156 million men.

Africa has the highest rates of child marriage. 14 out of the 20 countries with the world’s highest child marriage prevalence rates are in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the regions most affected by child marriage with 1 in 3 girls married off by the time they are 18 years old. 

Child marriage has many awful facets. It violates children’s rights, shatters their hopes and can ruthlessly take their lives. Apart from facing agonizing physical and psychosocial challenges, girls forced to engage in child marriage are denied the benefits of education, which further results in poor health, higher fertility levels, and lower economic productivity.

For instance, in Ethiopia, 80 percent of women who were married off as children have received no education and 81 percent cannot read at all. Only 3 percent of married girls aged 15–19 have got access to school, compared to 34 percent of unmarried girls. 

Child brides are likely to become pregnant at an early age and there is a strong correlation between the age of a mother and maternal mortality. Save the Children’s Every Woman’s Right Report says girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s; whilst pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for girls ages 15-19.

The pain and cost of child marriage cannot only be seen at the individual child level but also has its implications on national development. Child marriage robs children and women’s immense potential to political, economic and social advancement of a nation. 

The good news is that child marriage is well recognized as a menace to the continent by the African Union, which launched its campaign to end child marriage in Africa in May 2014.   The objective of the campaign is to accelerate the end of child marriage in Africa by increasing continental awareness of its effect.  The campaign also aims to enhance the implementation of related AU policy and legal instruments, such as; The African Youth Charter as a direct investment in young people, which is the epicentre of the AU Second Decade on Education (2006-2015); African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1999) and African Union Social Policy Framework (2009).

It is interesting to see some countries that have already demonstrated political commitment and have taken steps towards ending child marriage. Ethiopia has prepared the 2013 National Strategy and Action Plan on Harmful Traditional Practices with the objective of reducing child marriage from the current baseline of 21.4 percent to 10.4 percent. Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen, also made a commitment to eliminate child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in Ethiopia by 2025 at the first Girl Summit held in London in July 2014. 

While it is a commendable decision for African leaders to take stock of children and women’s development at the heart of this Summit, what is more important to end child marriage is the commitment of African leaders to take concrete action that can safeguard children’s universal rights and enable them grow and thrive.

Key actions that should be taken by African leaders include; increasing funding and resource allocation for interventions aimed at addressing child marriage, providing economic opportunities for children and their families and effectively enacting and or reinforcing legal provisions into practice.

Other critical actions include: strengthening coordination mechanisms at all levels against child marriage, empowering girls and women, and intensifying boys’ and girls’ education, integrating social service delivery, engaging religious and community leaders and other key public figures and ensuring tailored service delivery..

African leaders therefore should seize this opportunity and demonstrate their commitment to take decisive and robust action to end child marriage and report to the African Union on progress achieved. These actions tremendously transform the lives of children and women with a profound impact on the political and socioeconomic welfare of the continent.

Ed.'s Note: John Graham is Save the Children, Ethiopia Country Director. The article was exclusively provided to The Reporter by Save the Children, Ethiopia. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. His article is published in The Reporter newspaper on Jan 31st, 2015.