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African Union Pledges to Stop Child Marriage

FILE - A woman protests against underage marriages in Lagos, Nigeria, July 20, 2013. The African Union is to convene a summit in Zambia this week with a view to ending child marriage.

Confidence was just 14 when her aunt married her off to a 42-year-old man who already had a wife.

The now 22-year-old Zimbabwean says the experience shattered her. Her husband was abusive, as were his other wives.

“After two years of marriage, life was so difficult for me that I tried to kill myself by drinking rat poison,” she told Human Rights Watch researchers. The rights watchdog, in highlighting the issue, released several girls’ accounts but omitted their last names.

"Child marriage ruined my life,” Confidence said. “Now I do not work and cannot find a job because I stopped going to school.”

Ending child marriage

It’s stories like this -- all too common -- that have prompted the African Union to convene a summit in Zambia this week with a view to ending child marriage.

The assembly will pledge to set and enforce 18 as the minimum legal age for marriage across the continent.

The gathering accompanies a new report by UNICEF that reveals a shocking statistic -- if current trends hold and Africa’s population continues to grow at its expected rate, the number of child brides in Africa will more than double in the next 35 years, to 310 million married girls.

Unless things change, by 2050 almost half of the world’s child brides will be on the African continent.

The majority of Africa’s child brides -- some 23 million of them -- are in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, which has a minimum marriage age of 18.

Minimum marriage age

Marriage before the age of 18 is actually already against the law in most African countries -- though like many U.S. states, some countries allow teenagers to marry with parental consent, according to data compiled by the The African Child Policy Forum.

But that hasn’t stopped more 125 million girls from being robbed of their childhood by being married below that age in traditional or customary unions. Most of the children affected are girls, statistics show. Child grooms exist, but are rare.

AU chairwoman Nkosozana Dlamini Zuma said cultural norms that undervalue girls and women are largely to blame.

“Child marriage generates norms that have become increasingly difficult to exterminate – norms that undermine the value of our women,” Zuma said. “Through greater awareness, teamed with a collaborative approach, the crippling effects of child marriage can be eradicated.”

Experts say poverty and lack of educational options also contribute to the incidence of child marriage.

Child marriage dangers

Speaking ahead of the summit in Lusaka, Zambia, UNICEF Associate Director of Child Protection Cornelius Williams told VOA News that studies show child marriage can actually be deadly.

“Child brides are less likely to finish school, they are more likely to become victims of violence, they are more likely to become teenage mothers, with high risk of stillborn [babies],” Williams said, adding that marrying young also pulls girls out of the workforce.

Agencies like his say the single best way to prevent child marriage is to enforce and improve educational options for girls -- a move that he thinks will change the perception of girls’ role in society.

In countries like Zimbabwe, faith-based organizations are slowly coming around. But, Archbishop Johannes Ndanga, president of the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe, said not everyone is sold on the idea.

“We are trying to change, and stop child marriage in our churches, but we face a lot of resistance from some churches who hold on to many beliefs that justify exploitation of girls,” Ndanga said. “… We are facing strong and sometimes violent resistance from some of our member churches who continue with harmful practices of child marriage and abuse.”

Enforcing the age of marriage at 18 is necessary, UNICEF's Williams said, but the parents also need to be educated.

'I can't conceive it'

Williams, who has a 16-year-old daughter, considered his daughter marrying at 18.

“My daughter marrying in two years, I can’t conceive it,” he said. “I want my daughter to be able to determine her life path, the path in her life.

"I want her to be able to determine who she marries, what she wants do with her life in terms of her profession, what she wants to do with her life in terms of any choices she wants to make. I will only guide her. I wish that to all girls in Africa," Williams said.

As do the girls themselves.

Fifteen-year-old Abigail got pregnant at 14 after an affair with an older man and later became his de facto second wife.

The baby died within minutes of birth. Abigail went back to her mother, and told Human Rights Watch researchers she wants only one thing: “To go back to school, because I am still a child.”