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Africa: Strengthen Steps to End Child Marriage

December 10, 2015

African governments should coordinate action to improve laws, education, health care, and public awareness to end the scourge of child marriage, Human Rights Watch said today on International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2015. Forty percent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa marry before age 18, and African countries account for 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage.

A new 20-page Human Rights Watch report, “Ending Child Marriage in Africa: Opening the Door for Girls’ Education, Health, and Freedom from Violence,” shows how child marriage has dire lifelong consequences, often severely reducing a girl’s ability to realize a wide range of human rights. Marrying early often ends a girl’s education, exposes her to domestic and sexual violence, increases serious health risks and death from early childbearing and HIV, and traps her in poverty.

“Government leaders across Africa often say the right things about child marriage, but have yet to produce the political commitment, resources, and on-the-ground help that could end this harmful practice,” said Agnes Odhiambo, senior Africa women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that without progress to prevent child marriage, the number of married girls in Africa will rise from 125 million to 310 million by 2050. In September 2015, African leaders joined other governments to adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include a target to end child marriage in the next 15 years. Africa’s human rights treaties on women’s and children’s rights, agreed to by African states, explicitly state that the minimum age of marriage should be 18.

On November 26 and 27, the African Union held the firstAfrican Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage to highlight the devastating effects of child marriage, call for legal reform, and share information about good practices. Other continent-wide initiatives, including the campaign to end child marriage, which began in 2014, and the appointments of an African Union special rapporteur on child marriage and of a goodwill ambassador for the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage, are all steps in the right direction, but could be more effective with better coordination, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch research inMalawi, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe has shown that the absence of comprehensive national strategies on child marriage and poor coordination among government ministries and agencies undermines the effectiveness of government efforts.

“There is no single solution for ending child marriage,” Odhiambo said. “African governments should make a commitment to comprehensive change that includes legal reform, access to quality education, and sexual and reproductive health information and services.”

Many factors contribute to child marriage. Poverty is commonly cited by family members who may see marrying their daughter early as a means to economic survival, with one less child to feed or educate.

Many African countries have multiple legal systems, in which civil, customary, and religious laws overlap and in many cases contradict one another. Traditional beliefs about gender roles and women and girls’ subordination underlay many customary practices, such as payment of a dowry or bride price, which perpetuate child marriage.

At least 20 African countries allow girls to marry below the age of 18 through their minimum age laws or exceptions for parental consent or judicial approval. Weak enforcement has meant that there has been little impact even in countries that have established 18 as the minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls. Police may not have adequate training on dealing with these cases, do not see it as their job to prevent child marriages, or defer to the parents’ wishes.

Poor access to education can also contribute to child marriage. When schools are too expensive or distant or are of poor quality, many families may pull their daughters out, leaving them at greater risk of marriage. Inadequate water and sanitation facilities can deter girls from attending school, especially once they begin menstruating.

“Governments should set the minimum age of marriage at 18 and make sure it is fully enforced, including by training police and officials who issue marriage certificates,” Odhiambo said. “Since government officials can’t bring about change alone, they should work with religious and community leaders who play an influential role in shaping social and cultural norms.”

Adolescent pregnancy outside of marriage, or the fear that adolescent girls will get pregnant, also helps fuel child marriage. Limited access to reproductive health information and services for both unmarried and married adolescents contributes to this situation.

Complications resulting from pregnancy and childbirth are the second-leading cause of death globally among girls ages 15 to 19. The stress of delivery in other cases can cause obstetric fistulas, a tear between a girl’s vagina and rectum that results in constant leaking of urine and feces. Girls suffering this condition are often ostracized by their families and communities. Child marriage exposes girls and young women to violence, including marital rape, sexual and domestic violence, and emotional abuse.

“Girls and boys need information about their bodies, pregnancy, family planning, and healthy relationships,” Odhiambo said. “Adolescent sexuality is often a taboo topic, but equipping young people with information and access to services is essential for tackling child marriage and gender-based violence.”

For more information, visit www.hrw.org




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