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.
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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