As of June 2022, numbers stated that 130 million girls in Africa under 18 enter or entered marriages as children and are scattered throughout countries including Niger, the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Guinea and Nigeria.
Why Are Child Marriages Still Prevalent In Africa?
Child marriages are not unique to Africa. A staggering 250+ million women alive today were married before their 15th birthday globally, and approximately 17% of child brides reside in Africa. Child marriages exist on the continent for many reasons, and a significant factor is the widespread patriarchal ideology that is the backbone of many African cultures.
According to the African Health Organisation (AHO), “Deep-rooted patriarchal beliefs, the low value placed on girls, and the desire to control women, especially girls’ sexuality, underlie child marriage.” Child grooms exist to a lesser extent because of the higher value placed on the boy-child in African societies. Young girls are groomed differently from boys and are expected to assume different responsibilities and social behaviours.
From a young age, girls are assimilated into a lifestyle of servitude and are indoctrinated into believing their life’s purpose is to marry and bear children. It is ingrained into them that they should aspire to be attractive to men and nothing else.
“This is what happens when a girl reaches puberty. It is our culture, and that is the right thing for a woman to do. She will grow up quickly and learn how to take care of a man and the home and bring honour to her family,” Idrisu Ali, a Nigerian father of a 12-year-old daughter named Fatima, whom he married off to a 65-year-old man, told Forbes Africa.
Poverty places many young girls into early marriages. “In Africa, for example, girls from the poorest households are twice as likely to marry before age 18, as girls from the richest households,” the AHO states. “Similarly, girls in rural areas are twice as likely to become child brides as girls from urban areas.” Families urge their daughters to marry for monetary assistance through bride prices and dowries. In Ali’s case, Fatima’s husband paid her dowry in kola nuts, a cow, a bag of salt and a sewing machine—a very meagre offering for her innocence.
A lack of access to consistent education increases the chances of girls marrying young in poorer rural areas. Often, the girls are taken out of school at a very young age or never start at all. This exclusion obliterates any opportunity to find work and reduces their world to what is only in their immediate environment. Education is a powerful tool, and taking it away means taking away someone’s ability to fortify themselves and create a better life.
The Violent Nature of Child Marriages
The concept of child marriages is violent in and of itself. Denying a child their right to be a child and grow up in a safe environment is cruel and abusive. Unfortunately, most young girls forced into marriages experience physical violence and torture.
The stories of Hauwa Maltha and Esther Marcus are on the more extreme end of the spectrum as these two women (now 26) were abducted nine years ago at the tender age of 17 by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Their experiences are gruesome and terrifying as they were at the mercy of many men who had no regard for their lives.
In April 2014, news broke out that 276 schoolgirls had been abducted from the Chibok village’s Government Girls Secondary School in Nigeria by Boko Haram, sparking the global hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Maltha and Marcus are among the very few to be rescued thus far. The women were found last month and returned to their families. While in captivity, the girls entered forced marriages. AP News reported, “Both girls were married three times as one husband after another was killed during clashes with the Nigerian military.” As a result, both women have given birth to babies, with one giving birth to her second child mere days after her rescue. This is the reality for several girls held in the Boko Haram camp meaning the girls are subjected to sexual abuse regularly.
What Is Being Done About This Abusive Custom?
Nigeria’s Child Rights Act (CRA) prohibits child marriages; however, cultural customs and traditions tend to supersede the law. Western laws are seen as hindrances and are ignored by many in favour of tradition and Islamic law.
Organisations such as UNICEF and AHO have intervened to curb the spread of child marriages.
“Ending child marriage is a key priority for UNICEF,” Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, told Reliefweb.
“To accelerate efforts, we need to invest in areas for high impact, notably reducing poverty as a main driver of child marriage, ensuring girls’ access to quality education and learning at scale and social and behaviour change in favour of girls’ and women’s full and active participation in social and economic life.”
AHO works to bring justice to victims and ensure perpetrators are punished, spread awareness of the adverse effects of child marriages in communities, increase access to education among young girls and create safe spaces for them where they can convene, meet like-minded people and empower themselves through the community.
A UNICEF report claims there is indeed a decline in child marriages globally, but it will take 300 years to eradicate them.
“In the last 10 years, the percentage of child marriages has dropped from 23% to 19% [of all marriages]. However, this isn’t fast enough to achieve the goal of eliminating child marriage by 2030, with more than 12 million girls under 18 still getting married every year. So, if things don’t change, we’ll need around 300 more years to eliminate child marriage completely,” shared lead report writer Claudia Cappa.
Factors like ongoing climate crises, conflict, and natural disasters are why child marriages will take so long to end entirely.
“Some families in these difficult situations falsely view [marriage] as a way to protect their girls financially, socially and physically. While we can’t always predict these crises, we can look back to understand how they might affect girls,” Cappa elaborated.