Isn’t it time Africans stood up against child marriage?

Date: September 22, 2010
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Lawmakers, activists and world leaders are meeting in New York this week to discuss ways to accelerate the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in time to meet the 2015 targets. They will surely note the many gaps in programming and legislation around MDG work, especially in Africa.

This could be because the basic needs approach of the MDGs overlooks many of the women’s rights concerns that cut across and percolate through all other development and human rights issues. While the only MDG directly pertinent to gender has just one target to promote gender equality and empower women (eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education) there are myriad development issues relating to women and girls – quite often linking back to poverty and inequality.

One of them is child marriage, a custom that still retains a grip in many parts of Africa and the Middle East. While it is important for us Africans to practice and uphold our respective customs, it is equally necessary to eliminate (or modernise) some of our traditions that violate the rights and dignities of women and girls. These nuances are completely absent from the MDGs.

Yet these issues are being fought for in other ways. Two months ago youth protesters and activists in the United States went to Washington’s Capitol Hill to agitate lawmakers for the passing of the “International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act.” The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives is considering passing this Act, which would help protect girls’ human rights by establishing a strategy to prevent the custom of child marriage in the developing world.

But while our American friends march and protest on our behalf, for our human rights, we Africans (including many of our leaders) continue to perpetuate harmful practices here on the ground.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that 82 million girls in developing countries who are now between the ages of 10 and 17 will be married before they turn 18. Many of these girls will be forced to bear children before their bodies are ready, which will endanger their health and place them at a higher risk of complications during pregnancy or childbirth.

Marriage to older men also means young girls run a higher risk of contracting HIV. In addition, the child bride is unlikely to complete her education

Girls as young as seven have been given as wives to men in Africa while teenage boys have also been forced to marry at a very tender age. The act is especially common in poor countries with high poverty rates, like my home country of Sierra Leone, which sits at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index.

Until recently in Sierra Leone there was no minimum age for marriages and during a trip to the northern part of the country in 2008, I came into contact with many adolescent girls who had been given to wealthy farmers as wives. I was told some were offered for as low as a bowl of groundnut stew. Most now have kids and are living in deplorable conditions. I was met by a similar group of young wives on a trip to Obudu, in south-eastern Nigeria.

Thanks to a new child rights bill in Sierra Leone and the adoption of three gender bills, 18 is now the legal age at which a person can get married.

However, the problem persists in many corners of the continent, usually coexisting with poverty. But even in relatively rich countries like South Africa, young girls are being abducted and forced to marry older men under the guise of an outdated Xhosa custom called ukuthwalwa (translated “to be carried”).

Although in most places in South Africa this custom disappeared decades ago, it is still being practiced in parts of the Eastern Cape and girls as young as 11 are regularly abducted and forced to have unprotected sex with men who then become their husbands, often with the full knowledge and consent of their parents.

Ending harmful traditional practices in Africa seems a hard nut to crack since many African leaders espouse and encourage these outdated cultural relics. Hiding under the guise of religion or tradition, many African men continue to satisfy their selfish desires at the expense of the girl child’s development.

South Africa and Swaziland have polygamous presidents, Nigeria’s Senator Ahmed Yarima recently married a 13-year-old girl, and in Somalia, leaders have made a name for themselves by heading the only country in Africa not to have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

One of Somalia’s daughters, writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has been at the fore in condemning harmful traditional practices in her home country. In her autobiographical novels she painfully recounts the story of her own traumatising experience with female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

“I was condemned to a predictable fate, that of being subservient wife to a stranger,” she writes.

After we hear these painful stories it is sad that we can still sit and watch our young girls being given away like a loaf of bread to the highest bidder. Isn’t it time Africans stood up against child marriage?

We young Africans should pick a leaf from the page of our counterparts in the USA and begin to champion the rights of young girls in our respective countries, cities and townships so we can put an end to this antiquated practice.

The MDGs don’t specifically target the many harmful customs affecting girls and women in Africa, but there are many other human rights instruments and conventions that do. Either way, it’s time we take these matters into our own hands.

Mariama Kandeh is a Sierra Leonean journalist. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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