Action on Child Marriage; Daniel Browne

Opposition to child marriage has been clearly identified as an important principle of the United Nations organisation. On the very first International day of the Girl Child on the 11th of October, 2012, United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-Moon stated that “Child marriage divorces girls from opportunity and undermines their well-being.  Child marriage disrupts girls’ education, increases their exposure to abuse, jeopardizes their health and results in early and unwanted pregnancies — an often life-threatening risk.” He pressed governments, community and religious leaders, civil society, the private sector, and families to promote the rights of girls, urging them to “let us do our part to let girls be girls, not brides”.

UNICEF has estimated that approximately 70 million women worldwide aged 20-24 were married before becoming 18 years old. The organisation has also estimated that 23 million women of this figure were married before becoming 15.  As Ban Ki-Moon states, child marriage can be a life-threatening exercise, as 50,000 girls aged 15-19 die of pregnancy and childbirth-related causes every year.

Child Marriage is particularly a problem in sub-Saharan Africa. In Eastern and Southern Africa, for example, 36 percent of women aged 20 to 24 years of age were married before they turned 18. The problem is especially prevalent in states such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, where 49 and 47 per cent of women had been married by the age of 18, while 24 and 20 per cent of women had been married by the age 15. African states have largely recognised the problems that arise from child marriage. For instance, the practice has been declared illegal in Swaziland, and perpetrators will subsequently face rape charges, and they also face a fine of R20,000 ($2,400) by the child welfare law. Swazi AIDS activist Sandra Kunene has stated that although child marriage has long been common practice in Swaziland, ‘times are changing, and Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world. This practice has added to the spread of HIV.’ She added that ‘It is a great victory for public health and for the rights of girl children that this outmoded practice must now end”.

UNICEF has been an important actor in promoting opposition to child marriage across Africa. For instance, UNICEF has promoted community empowerment programmes in Senegal, which has led over 5,000 village to publicly declare their intention to abolish the practice of child marriage. In Uganda, UNICEF has assisted the use of modern communication technology and social media to promote opposition to child marriage. It is clear that opposition to child marriage is growing throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

However, the history of child marriage as a traditional practice throughout sub-Saharan Africa provides a barrier to the success of these measures. For instance the ban on child marriage in Swaziland has been made powerless by the superiority of Swazi Law and Custom, if a man marries in a traditional ceremony. Though it has never been written down, politicians are aware of the power of traditional Swazi law. Following the arrest of a local football player who sttod accused of raping a 14 year girl, who he claimed was his bride and that her family had agreed to the marriage, traditional leader Velebantfu Mtewa commented that “If the parents and the girl have agreed, the authorities never penalize anyone”.

It is clear, therefore, that the implementation of measures to prevent child marriage will experience difficulties.

Daniel Browne