On November 24-25, the African Union Commission, African First Ladies, CSOs, traditional leaders and multilateral partners convened in Accra, Ghana, for the 2nd African Girls Summit to End Child Marriage and Other Harmful Cultural Practices Against Girls under the theme “Enough with The Silence”. The event was preceded by a youth summit gathering hundreds of youth from across the continent.
GPE and FAWE brought an education perspective to the campaign and renewed strategic focus. The report “Educating Girls and Ending Child Marriage: A Priority for Africa” published by the World Bank and with financing from GPE, was presented at the Summit, stimulating debate on the drivers and impact of girls marrying early and the role of education.
The FAWE coalition and youth delegates actively engaged in the thematic discussions and shared their experiences on accessing youth-friendly reproductive health services, the role of young people in ending child marriage and including girls as decision-makers in issues that affect them.
Efforts initiated by the African Union
Launched in 2014 by African Ministers of Social Development, the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage targets 30 high prevalence countries. One of the strengths of the African Union is its ability to convene the continent’s governments to work together on key issues. The meeting in Ghana was an opportunity for all stakeholders to review the campaign’s progress since 2014, and shape its focus going into its next strategic period, 2019-2023, to end the practice reverse large prevalence rates.
Today, 125 million girls globally are married before age 18. Africa has highest prevalence of child marriage (40%) after South Asia (although Bangladesh has the highest prevalence of children married under 15). West Africa has the highest prevalence in the world.
FAWE, as a member of the Girls Advocacy Alliance, has been keen on influencing the development and implementation of policies at national and sub-regional levels that address child marriage as a barrier to girls’ retention in school.
Conflict is one of the key drivers. Girls in conflict situations are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school, and face additional risks (violence, abuse, exploitation) and pressure to marry early, further diminishing their life opportunities.
A high percentage of maternal deaths in conflict and humanitarian settings are also due to pregnancy, including early pregnancy. The World Bank report estimates that for 12 countries, the economic impact of child marriage is costing $63 billion in lost earnings and human capital wealth. These countries represent half of the continent’s population.
Quality education plays a key role in preventing child marriage and enhancing girls’ rights
Child brides are much more likely to drop out of school and complete fewer years of education than their peers who marry later. Child brides are also more likely to have children at a young age, which affects their health as well as the education and health of their children.
Child marriage and early pregnancy are key driver of mortality and morbidity rates of adolescent girls and under 5. Yet, evidence shows that a year of secondary education reduces the risk of child marriage and early childbearing by about 5-7 points.
Access to quality education reinforces greater access to information, which can increase girls’ and women’s knowledge of sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV/AIDS, unlike child mothers who may be shy to seek health services or advice. Also the attainment of higher education is associated with a reduction of one third in the fertility rate.
Child marriage isn’t inevitable
The summit demystified child marriage as a vice perpetuated due to factors such as a lack of harmonization among protective policies i.e civil and customary; zero or limited knowledge by girls on the frameworks governing child marriage, poverty, illiteracy, detrimental traditions and culture, and even religion.
The summit’s theme “Enough with the silence” zeroed in on the link between gender inequality and norms, equity and violence against girls and women, which perpetuate harmful practices against girls. Participants called for broader civic engagement for accountability and behavior change at national and regional levels, and addressing barriers to adolescent sexual and reproductive health and education rights and services.
Stakeholders also stressed the importance of connecting across sectors (in particular education and health) to keep girls in school.
More efforts needed beyond policies
While action on child marriage has been strong at the regional level, participants highlighted the need to strengthen implementation and accountability mechanisms. To date, 24 countries have launched the End Child Marriage Campaign since 2014. About 30% of AU member states have enforced and enacted laws that protect girls, 41% have developed national strategic plans, and 55% have established cross-sectoral coordination mechanisms.
While progress is laudable, participants called for more to be done accelerate progress, including ending other acts of violence against girls (female genital mutilation, violence in schools, and discriminatory exclusion). Countries must close gaps in laws, loopholes between customary and statutory laws, discrepancies between minimum age and 3rd party consent on child marriage.
There were interesting suggestions: cultural leaders could form a Joint African Movement to report cases of child marriage; establishing “husband schools” where young male adolescents are taught to care for themselves, uphold self-control, protect girls and advocate for their rights.
The youth were urged not to alienate themselves from the grassroots but instead increase their engagement with the traditional structures.
- enhancing the campaign conceptual framework,
- streamlining monitoring and evaluation, including working more with CSOs to support data-gathering and for social accountability, stricter and more targeted engagement of selected high burden countries, with close follow-up and effective accountability mechanisms,
- defining a comprehensive campaign narrative that defines multi-sectoral efforts and situates lack of access to education and sexual and reproductive health rights within the broader frame of gender inequality, gender norms and power disparities,
- rolling out Comprehensive Sexual Education in school curriculum
- stronger links between child marriage, early pregnancy, and sexual violation of children and adolescents with disabilities
Overall, participants called for multiple levers to accelerate action and behavior change. In order to help bridge the implementation gaps between policy and meaning for local communities, we need stronger engagement and inclusion of youth, traditional leaders, media and increased domestic financing.
As partners in the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), both GPE and FAWE are committed to accelerate action on gender equality and girls’ education. This includes partnering on the rollout of the GPE/UNGEI Guidance on developing gender-responsive sector plans and as one of the entry points in the implementation of the Gender Equality Strategy for CESA 16-25.
We are keen on continuing to influence policies and programs that dismantle barriers to girls’ education – including child marriage and girls reentry after pregnancy -and other harmful practice that impacts a girls learning and access to education. We can’t live in a world where half the population isn’t afforded the same opportunities to thrive.