From November 26-27, the African Union held the first ever Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa at the Government Complex in Lusaka, Zambia. The summit was sponsored by the African Union, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Women, International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF), and more.
Delegates from around the world – Ministers, First Ladies, Traditional Leaders, Survivors, Activists – gathered to present research, share compelling stories, ask thought-provoking questions, and discuss how to be the generation that ends child marriage.
An estimated 1 in 3 girls is married before the age of 18. If this trend persists, approximately 150 million girls will be married before the age of 18 over the next decade, averaging 15 million girls each year. Disempowered and vulnerable, child brides are at greater risk of experiencing complicated pregnancies, gender based violence, AIDS, and poverty.
While there is much to be done, I feel there are 4 action areas in particular that are crucial in combatting early child marriage.
1. Education is key
Studies show that countries with lower rates of educated girls are more likely to have higher rates of child marriage. In Senegal, 41% of girls without education are married as children before the age of 18, while only 14% of girls with a primary education are married as children. Uneducated girls are often kept at home because their families deem their domestic skills more valuable than an education, or because school fees are too expensive. Yet, an educated girl is more likely to have higher confidence, and develop negotiation skills to decide whom and when she will marry. Incentives, such as education scholarships, subsidies for school supplies, or even payments to families who send their girls to school, could help girls obtain at least a secondary education and increase their likelihood of not becoming child brides. For example, Malawi provides free universal access to primary education as a step towards ending child marriage.
2. We need to find other ways to economically empower families and households.
In 2009, the then African Region World Bank Vice President, Obiageli Ezekwesili, declared, the face of poverty is female Poor families might view daughters as unwanted burdens, especially financially, and consider marriage a solution to push them out of the household faster. Similarly, families can gain economically through early marriage by accepting a dowry, or bride price. Economically empowering households can curb the motivation for child marriage. In turn, eliminating child marriage would steady population growth and lead to increased earnings for women, likely through higher education achievement. In Niger, the country with the highest prevalence of child brides, eliminating child marriage could result in a 5.7% increase in Gross National Income (GNI) by 2030.
3. Everyone must be involved, including traditional leaders.
A particularly encouraging session at the summit, “Celebrating Success: Case Studies of Communities That Have Made Commendable Change,” outlined how traditional leaders are making an impact in the movement to end child marriage. In 2013, the Zambian Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs launched a national campaign to empower traditional leaders to end child marriage. Because these leaders are highly revered, they hold prominent influence in their chiefdoms. Zambian chiefs shared their success stories of banning child marriage in their chiefdoms, rescuing girls and boys from early marriages, appointing women to leadership roles, and banning traditional alcoholic beverages that are involved in the cycle of early marriage.
4. Above all, we must value the girl child.
It is easier to marry off our daughters when we do not value them. Child marriage is acceptable when cultural customs and traditions allow us to keep the girl child from receiving an education or marry her off for financial gain. Empowering young women can alleviate health systems, reduce poverty, and increase contributions to the global economy. The world cannot prosper when girls are side-lined.
Featured Image: Jessica Lea/Department for International Development from DFID – UK Department for International Development