With 11 October having been the International Day of the Girl Child, it is timely to look at the phenomenon of child marriage and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The Charter is the first international treaty to explicitly prohibit child marriage for both boys and girls below the age of 18 years (in article 21, which deals with Harmful Social and Cultural Practices).
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. Child marriage is a reality for millions of children – predominantly girls – across Africa. 39% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before their 18th birthday; 13% are married by their 15th birthday (see: UNFPA, 2012)
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. Child brides face higher risk of death and injury in pregnancy and childbirth, with girls under 15 being five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. When a mother is under 18, her baby is 50% more likely to die in its first year of life than a baby born to older mothers.
A couple of years ago Graca Machel, widow of Nelson Mandela, was instrumental in forming the organisation “girls not brides” to campaign for an end to child marriage. In June 2014, a conference on “a future free from female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage” took place in England.
In May 2014, the African Union Commission announced a new campaign to accelerate the end of child marriage. It was initially proposed that the campaign would run for a period of two years in 10 countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Mozambique, Malawi, Niger, Sierra Leone and Zambia. However, other countries have since joined the campaign, including South Africa, where teenage pregnancy is on the rise and data shows significantly higher infant mortality rates for babies born to girls in the 15-19 year cohort (South Africa’s report to the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, 9 October 2014).
On 11 October 2014, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the monitoring body of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child appointed a Special Rapporteur on Child Marriage. 1st Vice President of the Committee, Mme Fatima Sebaa-Djellab was appointed to the position, and will undertake investigative missions, receive complaints, and produce study reports.
Law reform to raise the minimum age of marriage will form an important tool in the campaign. Many African countries inherited colonial family laws or a common law which either provided for a minimum age of marriage at less than 18 years, or provided for exceptions to the minimum age of marriage (sometimes with parental consent, or upon application to a Minister or other functionary). However, it is widely known that law reform itself is not enough and that attitudes, values and beliefs must also change so that girls’ rights can be better safeguarded; Girls must complete school and leave marriage to adults.
Image: 2008 Assefa Amenu/CARE