ADDIS ABABA — Fourteen million girls below the age of 18 are forced into marriage each year by their parents in developing countries. Most of these countries are in Africa where at least 30 percent of girls are married before age 18, often against their will. Now the African Union has launched a two-year campaign to end child marriage in Africa.
Zenabu a 16-year-old girl from Niger says that she was taken out of school by her parents to get married, but her husband would beat her if she didn’t want him to touch her. She ran away to her parents, but they also beat her and returned her to the husband. She says she eventually ran away to an aunt and wants to go back to school.
Girls married at a young age often have mental anguish, suffer health problems due to early pregnancies and are less likely to get an education. Most of them come from poorly educated families and rural areas where girls cannot oppose the cultural norms of the family and community.
The African Union campaign to end child marriage is focused on policy action and raising continental awareness. The director of the AU Social Affairs Commission, Olawale Maiyegun, says member states of the AU should follow and implement legal frameworks that protect children.
“The Charter on the Rights of the Child, for example, has clear provisions on harmful practices against the child. It’s clear in the provisions of the charter, that cultural or religious or whatever should not be an excuse and states must take measures to eliminate them. People use all sorts of excuses to perpetuate what they are doing but it’s not an excuse as far as the commission is concerned,” said Maiyegun.
Among African countries, child marriage rates are highest in Niger and Chad, with rates above 70 percent.
In Zambia, the rate is 42 percent. Ten government ministries, including health, education, and legal affairs are working together to bring that rate down.
Zambian Minister of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs Nkandu Luo says traditional chiefs are also trying to change the cultural norm about child marriage in the country:
“The reason we felt that the chiefs should be the ones, is because it hinges on customary law and there is also a believe it has to do with our cultures. And when any parent is reported to the chief, first of all they appear before the chief because there is the traditional court. And they are charged according to the decision by the traditional court. But also they make sure they take that child out of marriage and put her back into school,” said Luo.
The End Child Marriage campaign of the AU is done in cooperation with African governments, UNICEF and civil society organizations.