Child marriage is an act that violates human rights, but unfortunately, it is all too common, especially in world’s developing regions of Africa and Asia. Thirty-seven thousand girls, who are below 18, according to the United Nations (UN), are married each day. Today, we’ve the highest number of married girls & girls at-risk of child marriage of African descent than ever before.
While child marriage is practised in all regions of the world and across every culture, every religion, and every ethnicity; the highest prevalence rates of the menace by country can be seen in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), with countries like Niger, Chad, and the Central African Republic leading the pack.
What are the factors driving child marriages? How can these causes be addressed? In the heart of this article, I will attempt to tackle these questions, proffer solutions to combat the menace of child marriage in Africa, and highlight one of the alleged causes, which is initiation ceremonies for the girls, especially in SSA.
What Is Child Marriage?
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), child marriage is “a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18 and refers to both formal marriages and informal unions in which children under the age of 18 live with a partner as if married.”
Though it affects both girls & boys, its impact is worse in girls, especially in South Asia and Africa.
A girl child, entering marriage before she clocks 18, is a fundamental violation of her human rights. Several factors interact to make a girl child face the risk of marriage, and they include poverty, the notion that marriage offers protection, social norms, family honor, religious or customary laws/practices which condone the act, the state of the civil registration system of a country, and weak legislative framework.
Consequences of Child Marriage for Girls
Child marriage, more often than not, compromises the development of a girl as it results in early pregnancy & social isolation. This interrupts her schooling, limits her career and vocational advancement opportunities, and exposes her to an increased risk of domestic violence.
Research shows that girls, who are below the age of 15, are five times more likely to experience death during childbirth compared with women that are in their 20s. Such girls also stand at a higher risk of pregnancy-related injuries like obstetric fistula.
Furthermore, it is often difficult — if not impossible — for child brides to negotiate safer sexual practices. Thus, they face a higher risk of HIV and other STIs. Unfortunately, the negative consequences of child marriage even extend beyond these girls themselves as children that are born to child brides have a 60% chance of experiencing death in the 1st year of life, in comparison with the ones that are born to mothers, aged above 19.
Also, families of child brides are more likely to experience poverty and inadequate health care.
Prevalence of Child Marriage among Girls in the World
Across the globe, child marriage levels are observed to be highest in SSA, as shown in the chart below:
The highest levels of child marriage can be seen in sub-Saharan Africa
Child marriage prevalence is decreasing around the world, with South Asia recording the most progress in the last 10 years. In this region, there has been a drop in a girl’s risk of marrying in childhood by more than a third, down to 30% from around 50%.
What Are the Causes of and Solutions to Child Marriage in Africa?
For low-income families that struggle for survival, one of the ways they can shed off the burden of caring for many children in the family is giving out the hands of their under-aged girls into marriage. This is a way to transfer the cost of raising a girl to a man who marries her, ensuring that only fewer children remain at home in the scramble for limited resources.
Equally for girls from poverty-ravaged families, marriage sometimes becomes the shortcut route to move out of poverty to some economically better households, especially if their targeted man is slightly better off than their parents.
Looking at marriage as an escape route from poverty for many African girls from low-income families is many times irresistible, a practice that is leading them into early marriages.
Society must be educated not to dispose of young girls into the gloomy abyss of marriages as a way of acquiring supposed wealth and shedding off excess baggage of responsibility in caring for their children. This, to me, is “a throw overboard technique”: When the ship is sinking, throw off some load into the waters to lighten the ship and stop it from sinking. This is what low-income families do — shedding off excess baggage in form of girls for them to survive.
For some low-income families, their girls are the only most natural means out of poverty. This, in itself, is a disgrace to all humanity and a gross violation of the rights of the girl child, most especially the African girl-child, who is more at risk.
When a family is poor, the more attractive and easier way to earn some income is through the bride price. When wealthier men approach a low-income family with bride/dowry price offering for their daughters, it is hard for them to turn it down.
These low-income families jump at these financial offers and give out their daughters into marriage, regardless of their ages and unpreparedness.
To some poorer families, the chance of owning a herd of cattle paid as the bride price/dowry is the only way to move out poverty. The bride price becomes the motivating factor in giving out their underage girls into marriage.
Some traditions play a role in the issue of child marriages. There is a belief in some cultures that girls married off at an early age are the “best”. These traditions and customs are woven into the fabric of such societies or communities as a whole.
This leads to the acceptance of the ugly inhumane practice of marrying off girls at a young age as normal.
There is also the belief by some men in some cultures that marrying young virgin girls is a source of pride. These poor young virgin girls are treated as trophies, evoking pride in men, who regard marrying under-aged girls as bragging rights.
In the same vein, there is another belief that under-aged girls, who are still virgins, attract more bride/dowry price, which in turn helps to lift poorer families out of poverty. The girls are thus used as a means out of poverty.
There is a rush in some cultures and a fear that if a young girl stays too long without marriage, once she loses her virginity, her stocks in terms of bride price diminish and plummet if she is impregnated outside wedlock.
That leads to a rush to cash in before the value of the bridal stocks depreciate.
Girls should not be kept as stocks that can be cashed in by society to the highest bidder and used as a means out of poverty. They must be left to grow, to go to school, to become mature (physically and mentally), and to become independent human beings, who are not reliant on men for survival.
African girls must be treated with respect and dignity as a human, and not as men’s trophies.
They must not be traded and listed as stocks in what I call “Community Stock Exchange” (CSE). We must advocate for total and complete end to the commodification of the African Girl and Woman.
Initiation Ceremonies: Are They Part of Tradition Or Sex-Grooming Schools?
Initiation ceremonies are held for both girls and boys in many Sub-Sahara African nations. For both genders, the ritual involves initiates going into secluded camps in a bush or house, where they get isolated with some secret inductions, signaling the right of passage from boyhood to manhood, and for girls, from girlhood into semi womanhood.
Both girls and boys, when they go through initiation schools as initiates, are schooled in various aspects of life, including respect for the elderly. Boys are taught how to be a man and girls how to be a woman within the traditional and cultural setup of defining womanhood and manhood in the tribes, where the initiates come from.
These initiation ceremonies are shrouded in secrecy, with initiates told never to divulge what they would have gone through, as doing so is seen as a taboo and would attract the wrath of the community elders. This confession is from the informants, who are directly involved with initiation ceremonies, with whom I managed to speak from various tribes in different regions in Zambia.
However, in this article I am looking at what role initiation ceremonies play in early child marriages and pregnancies. In research I conducted for TAWF, a charity dedicated to the promotion of the rights of the African Women/girls, I found out the following problems:
Problem One: The messages, in the initiation of girls from those who practice it, are problematic. Young girls, who go into initiation camps or schools, are exposed to explicit or sexually suggestive acts.
Some of the acts involve older women demonstrating how sex is performed in front of the girls and then putting the girls into demonstrative sexual acts as a way of teaching them how to have sex with men in real life.
These initiation ceremonies involve innocent underage girls who, until then, might have never been exposed to sexual acts. These girls initially experience great shock but are then made to understand what they are going through is normal and are told to accept it.
This causes a lot of psychological trauma for the unprepared under-aged girls.
Most of the girls, who underwent such initiations with whom I spoke, revealed that they were put into intensive and explicit sexual training and were instructed to master being able to use their waist in some sexually suggestive dance moves.
These ceremonies are nothing but camping activities, where girls are strictly groomed into mastering the world of sex.
Problem Two: Once these girls leave the initiation camps/homes, they are put under pressure to experiment with what they learnt during the theoretical inductions.
There is no way a kid, who is trained how to eat, will then avoid eating.
It goes without a saying that once the girls leave the initiation camps, the next stage in their lives is the experimental stage — to put into practice the knowledge they had gained. The innocent girls, who didn’t know what sex was, suddenly now have practical knowledge of the act.
They have been taught once they left the initiation camps, men would be waiting for them. So, they were told to buckle up and get ready for the advances.
In all spheres of life, natural law dictates that what comes after theory is practice. Once the sex experimental or practice stage begins for these girls, then the train of events start:
A: Real life sex
B: Early pregnancies
C: Under-aged marriages
D: School dropout: The result that follows with underage pregnancies & marriages is, dropping out of school. Once the girl drops out of school, the path to perpetual poverty is all but sealed.
- Sexually transmitted infections (STI): The risk of STI is increased.
F: HIV/AIDS infections: Engaging in sex exposes these girls to the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS
F: Social and economic Stagnation: If these girls are pregnant, they drop out of school, dashing their hopes of acquiring education and hopes of getting a better life.
G: More poverty: Without acquiring education the girls end up stuck in poverty, with no chances to escape its dismal grip
The cycle then expands: You now have a poor mother with kids that are likely to grow in a poor home. Those kids, growing under the care of a poor and stressed up mother, are not guaranteed a bright future. The likelihood of the kids ending up in the same situation is more than double.
From one event of initiation lasting for a month at most and considered vital in some communities, the fate of these kids and their poor mother is all but sealed and their future bleak.
Founder, The African Woman Foundation (TAWF)