In Sub-Saharan Africa, child marriage affects a staggering 40% of girls. Child marriage is the formal (or informal) marriage or union of a child under the age of 18, most often of a young girl to an older boy or man. Without the full consent of both parties, child marriage is internationally recognised as a human rights violation. However, many countries provide exceptions: parental consent, court legislation, customary provisions, and religious laws. These exceptions take precedence over national legislation and undermine the value of legal protections against child marriage.
WHY DOES CHILD MARRIAGE HAPPEN?
Despite the diversity across communities and cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa, the contexts and events that lead to child marriage are similar:
- The beginning of menstruation in young girls
- A fear of straying from tradition
- Gender inequality and social norms that value girls less than boys
Financial circumstances are the primary reason for child marriage. Impoverished families often view marriage as the only option to best support their daughters. When their daughter marries, the responsibility of her well-being is passed on to her husband and his family. As girls are not viewed as potential financial contributors, their marriage equates to one less mouth to feed and one less education to pay for. Some families use child marriage as a vehicle to reduce their overall economic burden. Where dowries are involved, challenges arise as a younger girl often equates with a higher price. In these unfortunate circumstances, girls are used as assets to offset debt, reduce overall family expenditures, or to secure profit.
SHOULD CHILD MARRIAGE BE PREVENTED?
Child marriage has far-reaching negative social, psychological, and health consequences for both the girls in question and their children. Child marriages forces young girls into adulthood, expecting them to perform domestic work, raise families, and often to terminate their education, during a period when they should be studying in school and enjoying their childhoods. Marriage at a very young age can also increase young girls’ exposure to marital rape, mental and emotional abuse, and sexual and domestic violence. These risks are especially common when there is a significant age difference between a girl and her husband. Additionally, girls are at higher risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth, as are their children. Children born to younger mothers are more likely to be born premature and underweight and are more likely to die as infants.
Girls that remain with their families and in school become both more engaged with society and financially independent. This is an important measure in improving the economic growth of nations and working towards ending poverty. Ending child marriage will directly benefit families and communities and help to ensure that girls get an education and live the best life they possibly can.
We need to challenge social norms that perpetuate gender-based discrimination and ensure that children are recognised as children, and are provided with the full protection of the law. We need to provide platforms empowering girls to be their own change agents and create safe spaces where they can voice their opinions against harmful practices.