CAIRO, Egypt / ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – A historic campaign to end child marriage across Africa was launched on 29 May 2014 at the African Union (AU) Commission Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Although commitments to end child marriage have been nearly universal around the world, one in three girls in low- and middle-income countries* continue to be married by age 18, and an estimated one in nine girls is married by age 15, according to UNFPA’s 2012 report Marrying Too Young.
Of the 41 countries with a child marriage prevalence rate of 30 per cent or more, 30 are located in Africa. The practice is most severe in West and Central Africa, where two girls out of five are married before age 18.
The consequences of this practice are severe, with many girls forced into sex, pregnancy and childbirth without regard for their consent or physical and psychological readiness.
“I tried to escape”
Three years ago, Clarisse, a 14-year-old girl in rural Chad, watched her mother and sisters prepare for a ceremony without understanding it would be her own wedding. When she realized she was about to be married, she panicked.
“I tried to escape, but [I] was caught. I found myself with a husband three times older than me,” she said.
Today, Clarisse is 17 and already the mother of two children. She lives with her husband and his four other wives. Like many married girls, she was compelled to abandon her education: “School was over, just like that. Ten months later, I found myself with a baby in my arms,” she said.
If this trend continues, an estimated 142 million girls will be married in the next decade, representing a serious violation of their human rights and a grave risk to their health. Adolescent pregnancy increases the risk of child mortality, premature birth and obstetric fistula.
In Sudan, 24-year-old Awatif was married at age 14 and forced to leave school in the fifth grade. She immediately became pregnant. “I went through days of obstructed labour at home; it was painful, and I thought I would die,” she said.
“My family took me to the hospital for assistance. I survived but my son didn’t, and I contracted obstetric fistula.” Fistula can cause incontinence, and is often accompanied by isolation and ostracism. Awatif’s husband abandoned and divorced her.
Yet it could have been even worse: Adolescent pregnancy significantly increases the risk of maternal mortality. In developing countries, complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the main causes of death among girls 15 to 19 years old.
Accelerating the end of child marriage
With UNFPA and other partners, the AU Commission is leading the campaign to accelerate the end of child marriage.
“We cannot downplay or neglect the harmful practice of child marriage, as it has long-term and devastating effects on these girls whose health is at risk,” said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the AU Commission, at the campaign’s launch.
The campaign will run for an initial period of two years in 10 countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Mozambique, Malawi, Niger, Sierra Leone and Zambia. After the two-year cycle ends, the campaign is expected continue in another set of African countries where child marriage is prevalent.
“Despite many national, regional and universal commitments to end child and forced marriage, progress has not come fast enough or gone far enough,” noted Julitta Onabanjo, UNFPA Regional Director for East and Southern Africa region.
“Our resolve today as we launch this campaign must therefore be resolute. We can’t afford to allow child marriage to hold back our girls any longer. We can’t allow child marriage to prevent our girls from getting an education, knowing [that] when a girl is deprived of education, poverty is passed to the next generation,” Dr. Onabanjo continued.
Campaign activities will include organizing events with media, civil society organizations and policymakers to increase awareness of the problem in each country. The campaign will also increase data collection to help governments and agencies more effectively combat the practice. It will also promote the implementation of laws related to child marriage, including those addressing human rights, gender equality, and maternal and child health. Technical support will also be made available to Member States.
In addition to partnering with UNFPA, the AU will be working with UNICEF, Plan International, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the Canadian Government, Save the Children, the African Child Policy Forum and others to implement the campaign.
* Excluding China