Progress registered in African Union Campaign to end Child Marriage
Since the African heads of state adopted a common position to end child marriages two years ago, there has been progress with about 15 countries having launched campaigns to end child marriages.
According to African Union goodwill ambassador Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, the efforts that have been exhibited are appreciated but because of the high level of political commitment displayed at the onset, it would be important to see more countries taking on the initiative.
Current statistics on early child marriages reveal that each year 15 million girls are married off young while 39,000 are married off on a daily basis globally.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that the number of married girls in Africa could rise from 125 million to 310 million by 2050 if no substantial progress is made to prevent child marriage.
UNICEF affirms that in Sub-Saharan Africa, a staggering 40 percent of girls marry before the age of 18 and African countries account for 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage.
Gumbonzvanda says that huge prevalence rates have been registered in West Africa and she cites Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad as counties where child marriages stand at a staggering 70 percent. Ethiopia follows closely with 60 percent of girls getting married under the age of 18 while Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia stand at 40 percent and Zimbabwe with 30 percent.
At the same time, Gumbonzvanda points out that statistics show most of these girls have been infected with Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV, and that they are now survivors of Fistula.
“They are stigmatised and in most cases do not get support,” she says.
Gumbonzvanda notes that while there are strong programmes around prevention of child marriages, very few focus on supporting girls and teen mothers.
“Most interventions focus on girls going back to school but there are no interventions for girls already in marriage,” observes Gumbonzvanda. She adds: “These girls do not have a social welfare system and largely depend on people who are abusing their rights.”
Gumbonzvanda says that although progress has been registered in the area of legislation, it was imperative to harmonise pieces of legislations that dealt with the issue of marriage and sexual offences to ensure that they were in tandem with each other and adequately criminalized early marriages.
“The laws are there but there are times when the laws are inadequate to deal with the complexities of the issue,” says Gumbonzvanda. “In some instances, we still have the challenge of definition of marriage by customary law and by statutory law.”
She expresses the need to create awareness on the laws. “We have had cases where the police trivialize the cases and dismiss them as domestic matters instead of treating them as criminal,” Gumbonzvanda explains adding that “the laws are good but insufficient without implementation”.
According to Gumbonzvanda, the AU campaign has registered a number of successes and she cites cases of young girls coming forward to share their story from a position of leadership as opposed to vulnerability. “Some girls have come forward to say I was at risk, but I managed to flee and I’m now a university student,” says Gumbonzvanda during an interview with the Reject.
Noting the need to incorporate all segments of society, Gumbonzvanda says cultural and religious communities have not been left out and they are coming out to reject the notion that practices within their institutions justify early child marriages.
For instance, she says, the Zimbabwean government has been taken to a Constitutional court for abetting child marriages which contravene the Constitution.
“We have some young women starting to share how we need to start addressing issues of trauma. We have realised that courage comes with a solid support network,” says Gumbonzvanda. She explains: “We have seen families sharing their personal experiences as adults who are responsible. It may not be instrumental but they have become champions to ending child marriage.”
Other countries that have witnessed progress include Malawi, where a traditional chief nullified over 300 child marriages and put sanctions to those who have married off their children within her jurisdiction.
She notes that Kenya has passed the Marriage Act which prohibits betrothal of a person below the age of 18 years while Zimbabwe has reviewed the Constitution to limit the age of marriage to 18.
Gumbonzvanda calls for long term commitment to addressing child marriages. “We must explore ways to integrate the campaign within the core work of the government so that respective national registration bureaus can register marriages and enforce the age limit while the Ministry of Education would address school drop outs,” she reiterates.
Gumbonzvanda warns against addressing the issue of child marriages as a standalone priority. “When the money dries out and it is not integrated into the budgeting processes of the government, then the campaign will fail.
“It is not enough to make speeches and engage in rhetoric about early child marriages if we are not going to see things changing. We need to track girls dropping out of school as well as rate of teenage pregnancies and child marriages.”
The campaign to end child marriages was launched in May 29, 2014 and seeks to ensure that there is the highest level of political will on the continent and its national level in order to drive policy, activities and programmes.
The campaign also seeks to ensure that there are national level strategies and plans that are costed and implemented because “we can have something at the African Union level but it doesn’t have impact unless it is owned at the country level and governments take ownership”.
The African Union’s launch of the Campaign to End Child Marriage speaks to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals target to end child marriages in the next 15 years.