In West and Central Africa, 39% of girls are married before they turn 18 years old.1 Their education and their childhoods are cut short before they are able to learn the skills needed to equip them for adulthood.
In order to coordinate efforts and mobilize action to put an end to this harmful practice, the first ever High Level Meeting on Ending Child Marriage in West and Central Africa was convened in Dakar, Senegal on October 23-25.
At the event, First Ladies, ministers, traditional and religious leaders, representatives from UN Agencies, INGOs and national CSOs, and youth worked together to develop new and scaled up solutions to end child marriage.
There was a lot of energy in the room, and at times frustration at the lack of progress made.
Many argued that the term ‘child marriage’ allows for the assumption that the child (mostly the girl) has a choice in the union, so there were strong calls to use language appropriate to the experience: forced marriage, violence or rape.
Quality education is essential to end child marriage
Many studies point to the fact that free education for all is a key solution to ending child marriage. Some families, when faced with high costs associated with education, decide to marry off their daughters, forcing them to drop out of school, while often their brothers remain in school.
If education commitments were met and free education was provided to all children, it would undoubtedly lead to more girls staying in school longer and marrying later.
The Minister of Gender from Ghana said that if the highest level of political leadership committed to providing all children with an education up to 18 years old, “that would be the answer to ending child marriage”.
But it is not just about free education; there must be quality and learning outcomes attached to it.
Poor quality education can be a supply side factor to child marriage.
When parents try to keep their girls in school and girls fail to learn enough, in contexts where few jobs are available, parents may decide that the only solution is to marry off their girls. So, quality education is the deterrent and prevention to child marriage, where girls access, transition, complete and come out with the skills necessary to function in life.
Of course, education needs to be fully funded, resources allocated better, and be gender sensitive, with sexual and reproductive health rights integrated into curriculums. The First Lady of Sierra Leone, one of the co-hosts of the meeting, pledged to work hard to see increased funding of education in her country.
Commitments, calls to action and outcome document
The High-Level Meeting included significant time for action-oriented activities. This included a youth call to action on ending child marriage, developed during the days before the meeting by girls and boys from across the region, delivered with high energy, eloquence and ownership.
Country delegations, with national CSOs, worked together to develop new commitments to end child marriage. For example, the government of Liberia committed to a national roadmap to end child marriage, in consultation with youth groups, women’s organizations and religious leaders.
The meeting resulted in an outcome document, which all government delegations signed on to. It lays out a comprehensive approach to ending this harmful practice and there is a strong set of organizations and people to take it forward, with the need for further integrate, coordinate and link with other sectors in the implementation of strategies and plans.
Young people are taking action to end child marriage
One powerful force taking this work forward are young people, from delivering their call to action to moderating panels, and discussing the work they are doing to put an end to child marriage. An example is the organization Tolerance Zero on Child Marriage, which works in Benin to raise awareness and put pressure on the government to end child marriage.
Children and young people are just affected by child marriage; they are in many ways the best advocates to put to an end to the practice. Many national commitments were made: drafting new laws, Parliamentary Acts, strategies, plans, setting up technical working groups, consultations, tracking progress, and committing to implement actions.
Funding education can save millions of children from early marriage
Child marriage will cost West and Central African countries tens of billions of dollars by 2030, according to new research by the World Bank funded by the Global Partnership for Education and the Children Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). The cost of not educating girls at the secondary level will be even higher.
Girls who go to school will have fewer, healthier children, obtain better paid jobs, and be better able to exercise their rights.
Fully funded, free, quality education for all would play a major role in protecting the 15 million girls who will be married off before the age of 18 over the next year, and the 51 million girls in Africa who are out of school.
Mutual accountability is key for action on ending child marriage
We all have a role to play and are all responsible for ending the harmful practice of early marriage, from global campaigns, grassroots advocacy, to government action. One clear recommendation in education is the development of robust cross-sectoral national plans. Education sector plans (ESPs) must include policies and strategies, supported by research and evidence, on ending child marriage. In the same way, national plans for ending child marriage must include linkages with ESPs.
Both plans must be participatory, inclusive of different actors and voices, well resourced, with transparent budgeting and clear targets. They must have an institutional and systems approach that brings about quality and deliver results.
It is only through these measures and interconnected work that all girls and boys will get a quality education and will be free from being forced into early marriage. Echoing the Global Education Monitoring report, which had its regional launch in Dakar during the same period, we are all responsible and accountable for education quality. Similarly with ending child marriage.
It’s time to end the harmful practice of child marriage, and it starts with well-financed quality education for all.
- UNICEF: State of the World’s Children, 2016