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Moving Forward for Our Girls: Ending child marriage in West Africa

Child marriage is the practice of parents marrying off their children under the age of 18, sometimes as young as 7 years old, because of tradition, culture, or financial issues within the home. The practice is a global phenomenon that affects millions of girls from all corners of the earth. The practice widely disenfranchises girls and prevents them from furthering their education, fabricating relationships with peers of their own age, forces them into motherhood before they are mentally and/or physically prepared, and puts them at boggling health risks that lead to death in many cases. Because of the practice girls are not only put in an intellectual deficit accompanied with a lack of social and emotional development, but the lives of both them and their offspring are put at great risk due to the circumstances these girls are compelled into against their will.

Child marriage is officially recognized as a health and human rights violation worldwide, and WACSI is strengthening the capacities of civil society organisations (CSOs) to be able to advocate for the rights and autonomy of girls inflicted by the practice in West African countries where child marriage is most prevalent.

In child marriages, many child brides do not know their spouse before they marry them, and some do not even see their future spouse until their wedding day. A lot of these weddings are pre-arranged even before birth. Some of the African countries with the highest rates of child marriage include Nigeria at 77%, Chad at 71%, Mali at 63%, Cameroon at 61%, and Mozambique at 57%. Half of the Ethiopian girls are married before the age of 15, and for Mali 37% of girls are married by the age of 15. Although the practice of child marriage has decreased over the past 20 years globally, 42% of girls between the ages of 15-24 in Africa are married off before they turn 18.

Child marriages involve both underaged girls and boys depending on the circumstance, but girls statistically make up the majority of adolescents engaged in the practice and suffer more as a gender. For example, in Mali, the girl to boy ratio for child marriage is at a staggering 72:2 and in Kenya, the girl to boy ratio is 21:1. These early marriages almost guarantee that these young girls will never complete their education, as they are expected to carry all the responsibilities of upkeep in the household. This practice robs them of any chance of pursuing their dreams. Abuse and mistreatment are also common in these arranged marriages.

 The main driving force that continues to perpetuate child marriage is poverty. Often, families will marry off their daughter(s) because they do not have enough money to support their family unit as is. Many parents believe that marrying off their daughter(s) will ensure her financial security, which is something that the father may not be able to provide for his child. In cultures and countries that practice child marriage, daughters are seen as investments. Clothing, feeding, and educating young girls is a financial burden that will ultimately not benefit the home because the daughter will eventually leave and become a part of her husband’s household. Hence, more value is placed on training and empowering the sons of the family because they are the offspring that will inherit the father’s fortune and will continue to carry the family’s name.

 It is believed that the biggest financial contribution that a daughter can make to the household in poor families is the dowry her suitor will pay for her hand in marriage. In many countries dowries depreciate as the girl grows older and this prompts families, especially families struggling financially, to marry their daughters off young.
 
Child marriage is also linked to rapid population booms and infant mortality. 9 out of 10 adolescent pregnancies in developing countries occur within a marriage before the girl’s body is fully matured, and many of these pregnancies have complications throughout the trimesters. Some girls form vaginal fistulas and are left by their husbands because they are seen as marked or cursed. Other girls die during childbirth, lose their child, or both, and can become barren because of the injuries inflicted on the body during the pregnancy.

Children should be allowed to be children, and WACSI has submitted a proposal in efforts to partner with the Ford Foundation to help build and strengthen the capacity of CSOs to help end this inhumane practice. 

WACSI has launched a project entitled: Strengthening Capacity of CSOs Working on Child Marriage in West Africa to the Ford Foundation for funding towards the project, which has an estimated length of one years. During this period WACSI aims to build the capacity of local partners such as Girls, not Brides to improve their advocacy efforts to help end child marriage in West Africa. As organisations continue to strive for a world free from child marriage, the reality of a world where girls are no longer constrained and oppressed by child marriage becomes more feasible with each step we take forward towards gender equality and justice in West Africa.

Source: Nour, N. M. (2006, November). Health Consequences of Child Marriage.

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3372345/

Kayla Green interned at WACSI as part of the Arizona State University's Summer Study Abroad Programme, under the Knowledge Management Unit.

Disclaimer: The author of this article, Kayla Green, writes this in a personal capacity and does not speak for WACSI.

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