ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The African Union began its first continent-wide movement to end the practice of child marriage. In Africa, one in three girls are married before their 18th birthday, often without their consent. And although many have been advocating for an end to this practice, the conference marked the first time a large number of governments, civil organizations, United Nations agencies and survivors of child marriage have come together to condemn the practice.
Over 17 million girls across Africa are forced to marry at a young age. The continent contains nine out of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage in the world. Specifically, the instance of child marriage affect 75 percent of girls in Niger, 68 percent in Chad and the Central African Republic, 63 percent in Guilea, 56 percent in Mozambique, 55 percent in Mali, 52 percent in Burkina Faso and South Sudan and 50 percent in Malawi.
The practice is not only a violation of young girls’ rights, but also poses great health risks. The prevalence of child-brides results in high rates of maternal and child mortality, as girls in these marriages are more likely to experience premature births, obstetric fistula, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and domestic violence. Having a family at a young age also limits access to an education and employment.
The African Union began the campaign during the Conference of Ministers of Social Development, with its conference theme of “Strengthening the African Family for Inclusive Development in Africa.” It actively seeks to put an end to child marriage. The campaign is scheduled to run for an initial two years. Ten countries have signed on to launch the campaign domestically and more nations are expected to join.
Those speaking at the conference stressed the need for action. If nothing is done to stop the practice, over 14.2 million girls under the age of 18 will be married every year and the number of girls under the age of 15 giving birth will rise from 2 million to 3 million by 2030. The end of child marriage will also bring freedom. More women will be able to have an education, participate in the work force and overcome poverty. Empowering women will not only have individual potential, but will also lead to greater development of African nations.
The key to success for the campaign will be through governments enacting and upholding laws against child marriage and grassroots organization to educate people about the consequences of the practice to local communities. Specifically, governments need to implement laws to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18. The combination is essential because the majority of instances of child marriage occur with poor families who have little access to opportunity.
Although the rate of child marriages has declined in recent years, the problem is complex and continues to persist. As Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission noted, child marriage is linked to deep social problems including poverty, gender based violence and gender discrimination.