Sub- Saharan Africa holds the highest level of child marriage globally, having overtaken South Asia. Around four out of every ten girls on this continent is married before the age of 18 , and six of the ten countries with the highest child marriage prevalence are here, on this continent. In these six countries, the rate of child marriage ranges from nearly 80 percent of girls being married before 18, to 45%.
Let’s pause and consider that in real numbers: we are talking about millions of girls across the continent who are unable to enjoy their full rights to health and nutrition; education; a life free of violence and the right to choose when and to whom they will marry. The lives of these girls can also be brought to a premature end as child motherhood, a direct consequence of child marriage, is also the leading cause of maternal mortality and morbidity for girls in Africa aged 15-19.
Child marriage is a complex issue, driven by numerous factors in different societies, and as I have noted has devastating and long-term effects on the physical; psychological and emotional wellbeing of the girl child.
Child marriage and poverty
Child marriage has a grave impact on wider communities and the sustainable development of member states as a whole. Poverty and deprivation continue to be primary drivers and consequences of child marriage: Globally, more than 50% of girls from the developing world were married as children. It is also the case that girls from the poorest families are more than 3 times more likely to marry as children than girls from the wealthiest families.
Girls who marry early are far less likely to complete primary and secondary school, and a result often unable to gain decent employment and livelihoods. Limiting girls’ productivity and earning potential in this way undermines national GDPs and the potential for economic growth. Again, further entrenching poverty.
Child marriage and conflict
It is time for us to increase our focus on the ways in which conflict and fragility exacerbate the risks of child marriage. In conflict affected contexts, girls may be forced into marriage as a direct weapon of conflict; they may be married off by their parents, who believe their girls will be better protected from sexual assault and physical violence if they are married. Conflict often leads to a break down – or weakening of protection services meant to prevent child marriage. This in turn exposes girls to greater risk of harm and violence.
Still, in spite of the increased anecdotal evidence around this. We do not yet have sufficient data on the direct impact and increase in girls marrying early as a consequence of conflict. It is imperative that we do better in this respect – and commit to collecting; tracking and monitoring the trends associated with child marriage and conflict.
To take this point further – as well as gaining a better picture of the realities of child marriage in conflict affected contexts. It is also critical that together – member states, the Commission and other key stakeholders commit to increase the provision of services targeted at adolescent girls during conflict. This must include the provision of education; health and nutrition, and the provision of sexual and reproductive health services; and robust child protection services.
Child marriage is a crosscutting problem. It is a security, development, cultural, health, political, religious and gender inequality issue. The AU Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa was designed to respond to the practice of child marriage in countries taking into account these intersections. As the campaign enters its next five year phase (2019- 2023) in line with the Commission’s Medium Term Plan, we would like to call upon each of us represented in this room: AUC colleagues; member states and non-governmental organizations and partners to be bolder and more audacious in our efforts to end this practice.
Throughout the past four years since the campaign was launched in 2014, we have made some progress – but there is still much to be done. We need greater coordination: As member states and the AUC we must work closely together towards ending this practice. We must consider and agree a Presidential level continental peer review mechanism to track progress made at the national level.
We need to ensure that every member state has ratified legislation which explicitly sets 18 as the legal age of marriage. To this end, we must ensure that all member states have signed and ratified the Maputo Protocol and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child – both of which prohibit child marriage.
At the national level, member states must implement costed and resourced cross government plans focused on ending child marriage. These plans must focus on prevention and the provision of services for girls married. They must also facilitate the collection of disaggregated data to allow us to track progress made.
Ultimately, child marriage is a social norm. It is therefore critical that we collectively, take steps to engage community and religious leaders; as well as other community based actors such as teachers; health professional and law enforcement officials to end this practice and change attitudes towards child marriage.
The AU Campaign to End Child Marriage has the mandate of monitoring and evaluation as well enhancing the capacity of Member States. In this regard, the Commission piloted a project to provide technical assistance to Member States that have launched the AU Campaign. So far, the project has been deployed to seven Member States namely: Ethiopia, Chad, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Burkina Faso, and Malawi. In addition to providing technical assistance these youth experts are bridging the existing communication gap between ministries and the Commission. Besides the project the Joint General Comment and the Compendium of laws on child marriage were developed as comprehensive and accessible reference for policy makers, researchers, advocates and other stakeholders.
It is my hope that we will come up with concrete solutions that protect the psychosocial and overall wellbeing of children in Africa, especially those in harm’s way.
By H.E. Mrs. Amira Elfadil
AU Commissioner for Social Affairs.