Research Intern, Jindal Centre for the Global South,
O.P. Jindal Global University, India.
Around 39,000 child marriages occur every day around the world. If these trends persist, approximately 150 million girls will be married off by 2030, many against their will. Nine out of the ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, the average prevalence of child marriage is 37 per cent, but it varies among countries, ranging from only 1.8 per cent in Algeria to 74.5 per cent in Niger. Niger has the highest child marriage prevalence rate in the world. In 14 African countries, more than 40 per cent of women aged 20-24 were married before they reached the age of 18 and in six of them, the rates are above 50 per cent (Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, and Niger). In 11 countries the rates are under 20 per cent and in six countries they are under 10 per cent (Algeria, Djibouti, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, and Swaziland). In the remaining 18 countries with known prevalence, the rates are between 20 per cent and 40 per cent.
In terms of the number of girls affected, although its national prevalence rate is moderately high (39.4 per cent), Nigeria, due to its large population, by far has the highest number: more than 15 million married girls. The second-highest number is found in Ethiopia where close to 9 million girls were married before the age of 18 according to surveys. Countries that are showing significant overall decreases of 10 per cent or more in the prevalence of child marriage include Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and the United Republic of Tanzania.
Gender inequality, poverty, exclusion, marginalization, and insecurity are some of the factors that contribute to the practice of early marriage. Poverty is a major factor underlying child marriage. In families with a low household income, children, especially girls, can be viewed as an economic burden, and early marriage is perceived as a solution to remove this burden. The consequences of child marriage include poorer health outcomes, lower level of educational attainment, higher risk of violence and abuse, together with persistent poverty and missed opportunities for girls and women’s empowerment. Only 32 African countries have the minimum age of marriage at 18 or higher for both girls and boys.
There is a glaring lack of programs to build awareness about the law and systematic enforcement. Although legislation to set a minimum age has a significant role in the definition of a strong legal framework, legal reforms need to be combined with clear implementation measures, including budget allocation, practical action plans, and the development of relevant tools and mechanisms to train public officials and set up specialized courts. Legal reform in this area will only be effective if combined with other tools to raise awareness among the local communities, and comprehensive strategies to address the main drivers of child marriage, such as poverty, gender inequality and security.
In many countries with high overall rates of child marriage, the rates are more than twice as high in rural as compared to urban parts of the countries. In most countries, there is a strong correlation between education and income level. In particular, the early marriage rates are much lower among women who have received secondary education and belong to households in the richest quintile.
Married girls are in most cases expected to become pregnant immediately or soon after marriage and early marriage is associated with elevated total fertility rates. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the main causes of death among adolescent girls 15-19 years old in developing countries. The risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes is four times higher for adolescents under 16 years than for women in their early twenties. Health consequences for the mother affect negatively the health and life of the new-born. The causes of child marriage are complex, interrelated and very often dependent on social and economic circumstances and the cultural context relevant to that country.
Several international legal instruments have analysed child marriage through the lenses of both civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural rights. These covenants suggest that child marriage is a violation of interconnected rights, including, the right to equality on grounds of sex and age, the right to marry and establish a family, the right to life, the right to the education, development, and the highest attainable standard of health. These rights are stated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Convention on the Consent to Marriage; Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages; the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery and the Protocol to the Convention on the sale of children, children prostitution and child pornography. In addition, child marriage is also prohibited by regional standards, most notably the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (known as the Maputo Protocol).
Some countries set a minimum age of sexual consent that differs from the minimum age of marriage. In Malawi for example the minimum age of marriage is 15 while the age of sexual consent is 16. While in Sudan, where the minimum age of sexual consent for girls is 18 years, girls are allowed to marry at puberty for marriages within the Muslim community, and at the age of 13 for all other marriages. Misperceptions that equate sexual maturity with readiness for marriage do not consider the ongoing physical, psychological, and emotional development of girl child brides.
Three diverse types of approaches exist concerning the criminalization of child marriage in Africa –
- Countries that criminalize the practice include Botswana, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and Uganda, among others.
- Countries that ban or invalidate marriages below the minimum age include Angola, Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda.
- Countries that prescribe a minimum age of marriage without criminalizing or banning the practice include Algeria, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Niger.
Within some plural legal systems in Africa, customary laws are given Constitutional recognition as part of the State’s law. Based on beliefs sometimes associated with cultural or religious norms, child marriage is not viewed as a criminal offence, but as a culturally legitimate practice. As recognized by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC), the harmonization of the different sets and kinds of norms is instrumental to the fight against child marriages.
In general, there is a need to reconsider and strengthen enforcement policies. Enforcement of these laws is weak, both because of resistance from local officials due to prevailing social norms and practices and because of practical difficulties in enforcing them. Law enforcement training and child marriage education for police and other law enforcement officials, judiciary personnel and community leaders are highly needed.
- Child marriage. (n.d.). https://www.unicef.org/wca/child-marriage
- (2013). The contribution of laws to change the practice of child marriage in Africa. https://www.fillespasepouses.org/documents/863/IPU-WHO-Child-marriage_study-October-2013.pdf
- Research priorities on ending child marriage and supporting married girls. Reproductive Health, 12(1), 80. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12978-015-0060-5
- Yaya, S., Odusina, E. K., & Bishwajit, G. (2019). Prevalence of child marriage and its impact on fertility outcomes in 34 sub-Saharan African countries. BMC International Health and Human Rights, 19(1), 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12914-019-0219-1
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.