Child marriage and the education crisis in Africa: Where do we go from here?

To make progress in the coming years and with 2030 fast approaching, Africa must ensure a strong multisectoral coordination that better links child marriage to other sectors, particularly education. This is the one of the agreements realized at a meeting hosted by the African Union Campaign to end child marriage that took place in Johannesburg last December. 

January 14, 2020 by Victoria Egbetayo, GPE Secretariat, and Yvette Kathurima Muhia , Girls Not Brides
7 minutes read
A meeting was hosted by the African Union Campaign to end child marriage in Johannesburg last December
A meeting was hosted by the African Union Campaign to end child marriage in Johannesburg last December
Credit: GPE/Victoria Egbetayo

The multi-stakeholder, multi-sector approach brought to light the importance of education to ending child marriage (sometimes referred to as early or forced marriage) in Africa in a way never seen before. It also highlighted linkages with the continent’s learning crisis, which is hitting girls the hardest and limiting Africa’s socio-economic development potential.

Girls hit hardest

Girls with no education are 3 times as likely to marry by 18 as those with secondary or tertiary education. In Africa, the top 20 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage include Chad (67%), CAR (68%), South Sudan (52%), Mali (52%), Niger (76%) and Mauritania (37%). 

According to the GPE Results Report 2018, nearly all of these countries also fall below the threshold for gender parity index of 0.88 for both primary and lower secondary completion. Meaning, the gender gap disfavors girls, putting them at a disadvantage for primary and lower secondary completion rates. These countries are also among the poorest and most conflict-affected in the world. 

Millions of girls are not in school and millions are not learning. Some parents also do not see the value, or at least the long-term socio-economic returns of education for girls who will eventually leave home once they get married. 

The short-term economic gain from marrying off a girl is what is prized, without fully appreciating the long-term benefits accruable to a family, community and nation from investing in her education. 

Africa tops the ranks for inequity in education

Coupled with the impact of child marriage on girls’ education, the world’s learning crisis is hitting Africa the hardest, particularly its girls. According to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, there are 32 million out-of-school children of primary age in Africa and 28 million out-of-school adolescents – the highest rates globally. 

Unsurprisingly, the continent has the highest proportion of children unable to read proficiently by age 10. Exclusion and the absence of foundational education skills are rooted in the early years and girls are disproportionately affected – with only 1 in 3 completing lower secondary education. 

In Africa, girls living in conflict situations are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school, becoming more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, gender-based violence and child marriage.

Child marriage is rooted in gender inequality

The root of child marriage is gender inequality, and education, in complement to other sector interventions, is a key strategy to avoid girls marrying before age 18. Child marriage and early child bearing are key contributors to girls dropping out of secondary school – and returning to school for those who have children can be difficult or even impossible.

Yet we know that reduced girls’ educational attainment denies girls’ their rights, limits their potential and costs countries trillions in lost earnings.

The GPE-funded study by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and the World Bank estimated that if Niger eliminated child marriage, there would be increases in educational attainment and declines in fertility rate that could lead to benefits of more than US$25 billion between 2014 and 2030.

Girls are key to Africa’s human capital

When girls have access to safe, quality education, the benefits are widely felt for her as an individual, for the society and nation at large.

Socio-economic dividends are higher when girls stay in school. Each additional year of schooling for girls increases earning by at least 10 %. Each year of secondary education reduces the likelihood of marrying as a child before the age of 18 by five percentage points or more.

And, universal secondary education (12 years of schooling) could virtually end child marriage and reduce prevalence rates of early child bearing by up to three fourths – as well as impact health, nutrition, fertility rates, agency (decision-making) and increase human capital wealth.

Eliminating child marriage today could save many governments 5% or more of their education budget by 2030. It’s clear: child marriage and girls’ education are two intertwined issues that impact each other.

Giving girls better access to quality education and keeping them in school longer is a key to avoiding them marrying early, improving their outlook as well as the development prospects of nations.

AU campaign to end child marriage

In response to the slow and uneven decline in child marriage in Africa, in May 2014 the African Union launched a campaign to end child marriage.

The first phase from 2014 to 2018 focused on raising awareness of the dangers of child marriage and increasing political will. The campaign was launched in 28 countries across Africa. Some regions adopted their own texts, like the SADC Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage and Protecting Children already in Marriage and the ECOWAS roadmap and Theory of Change to end child marriage.

Communities have also taken a stand against child marriage. In June 2019, the Grand Iman, second in charge of Al-Azhar University in Egypt, declared a fatwa against child marriage, highlighting that marriages should be based on mutual consent of persons over 18 years of age.

In Ethiopia, leaders of the Orthodox Church declared that they will not preside over marriages where either spouse is under 18. In Malawi and Zambia, chiefs, such as Chief Chamuka, have developed chiefdom by-laws outlawing child marriage. According to chief Chamuka ‘child marriage has no place in modern society’.

From awareness to action

“We need to continue to engage and work together to...produce results and connect from the Government level to youth, religious and traditional leaders, and local CSOs among others”

Dr. Jane Marie Ong’olo, Head of Social Welfare and Vulnerable Groups Division at the AU
Meeting hosted by the African Union Campaign to end child marriage that took place in Johannesburg last December 2019. 
Meeting hosted by the African Union Campaign to end child marriage that took place in Johannesburg last December 2019. 
PME/Victoria Egbetayo

In the next phase of the campaign, the African Union seeks to move from awareness of the issues to supporting member states in implementing existing commitments and ensuring the enforcement of laws and policies to end child marriage.

This can only be done in an environment where there is coordination among sectors. Child marriage is a hydra. Eradicating it requires strong partnership, both between stakeholders and sectors such as education, health, nutrition, gender, justice and child protection.

Strengthened collaboration with civil society and development partners is key, because the campaign is greater than the sum of its parts.

In the education sector, national stakeholders gathered in South Africa emphasized the importance of addressing barriers such as the lack of access or limited access to schools; inadequate sanitation to support menstrual health management, and laws that ban re-entry for girls.

The appeal has also been to edify the curriculum to include age-appropriate education on sexual health and rights as well as courses for girls already in marriage.

Participants recognized the need for significant country-level impact, and so discussed key strategic shifts needed:

  • accelerated action in country
  • the centrality of a rights-based approach
  • gender equality and transformative approaches as a key principle
  • strong multi-sector coordination mechanisms
  • strong legislative agenda (particularly perpetrator responsibility)
  • strengthening country systems (education, health, social protection and rapid response mechanisms)
  • support to emerging social movements among youth, traditional and religious leaders and parliamentarians
  • mutual and social accountability among all actors
  • scaling and replicating good practice, as well as facilitating knowledge exchange and learning.

The GPE Knowledge and Innovations Exchange (KIX) gender equality discussion paper identifies research, data and evidence gaps on gender, including child marriage, that could and help developing countries deliver transformational change in their education sector planning and implementation.

Country, regional and global synergies for accelerated progress and impact

The AU campaign is instrumental: it provides an outline for member states to adopt and harmonize legislation to address child marriage, as well as a monitoring and evaluation framework.

The integration of stakeholders such as civil society, including youth, traditional and religious leaders, and parliamentarians, is paramount as they play a critical role in rallying citizens in their communities and ensuring social accountability.

Participants also emphasized that ensuring synergies with existing regional and global initiatives can promote needed complementarities and coordination. They added that a concerted approach is needed to engage new actors, particularly in the education space: ministries of Education, actors such as the Global Partnership for Education, and the G7 endorsed Gender at the Centre Initiative (GCI). 

The GCI has the potential to elevate attention of child marriage and other barriers to girls’ education in the 8 pilot countries, some of which have the highest prevalence rates of the practice. 

GCI seeks a strategic shift toward a broader focus on how education systems can advance gender equality–ranging from safe learning environments, teacher training and deployment, curriculum and materials development to administration and leadership. 

The end goal is that a country’s education planning, implementation, budgeting and accountability are all geared towards ensuring that all girls and boys are educated, healthy and safe, and able to reach their full potential.

Being inclusive of vulnerable groups

Education is one of the most powerful avenues to prevent and respond to child marriage, and child marriage is both a consequence and driver of gender inequality.

When linked to education, it is essential that safe spaces for both at risk and married girls are instituted to complement formal education systems. 

Economic support and incentives should be provided to help girls as well as families overcome barriers presented by lack of access to formal education. 

In placing girls at the center of all our initiatives, it is vital that the education system supports and is inclusive of vulnerable groups including those with physical and cognitive disabilities who are at heightened risk of child marriage and other harmful social practices. 

Read also
Girls should be walking to school not down the aisle. Editorial by Mabel Van Orange and Alice Albright in The Telegraph (October 2019)

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I'm struck by the observation at the top that families are disinclined to educate their daughters in school because they don't see the socioeconomic benefit, particularly as their daughters will soon move out of the household. In reality, it often makes good sense to educate their daughters at home, given the endemic poor quality and lack of relevance of a school education.

In the early 2000's, I introduced a girls' schooling project in Benin that is to this day one of my favorites. Eschewing a social marketing approach--great at introducing arguments but not at changing minds or behaviors, in my experience--, we opted to start by asking parents and the larger community in remote villages four questions:
1. What do the most respected and effective mothers, wives, and other adult women in your community do?
2. What do they need to know to be able to do it well?
3. Where do they learn what they need to know?

(To this last question, they pointed to the household and community for many aspects, but to school for a few key competencies and knowledge. In every setting, this compelled the community to conclude itself that a basic school education is greatly useful for their daughters, even if they will not go far with their formal education and leave the village. This was true, too, for parents as they considered the qualities they would value in a potential bride for their sons.)

The fourth question was, then:
4. What measures might you take and like to see the project and government take to make it easier and more attractive for your daughters to attend and succeed in primary school?

The responses were very diverse, touching aspects ranging from pedagogy and relevance to infrastructure and security on the way to school. In several villages, they also tackled the long-standing cultural tradition of "vidomegon," a form of child trafficking that once placed girls as maids and shop helpers in urban settings with little risk but has since become much more fraught. It would have been very hard for us as an outside project to convince communities to abandon this practice, but as a decision that they owned following a collective review of the practice, they could do so.

I'm hoping that this experience might serve as inspiration to some dealing now with the challenge of child marriage.

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