Friday, September 19, 2014

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Our Daughters Should be in School, Not Wedlock

Child marriage can't be ended overnight. With political will, however, it can be ended in a generation.
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Schoolgirls role play a wedding ceremony in Ethiopia. Photograph by Ashenafi.

Every year on 16 June, the Day of the African Child provides an opportunity to evaluate the progress that's been made for children across Africa.

There is often plenty to celebrate. Fidelis from Kenya, for example, was able to stay in school and avoid child marriage thanks to joining a reproductive health education programme. “If I was not enrolled… I would have most definitely dropped out of school, been married off and my future [would have been] done away with," she said.

Unfortunately, however, there is lots to continue fighting for. Not every girl is as fortunate as Fidelis and there are several outstanding challenges stopping so many other children from getting an education. Few of these challenges are more pressing than child marriage, a practice that pulls girls out of school and traps them in wedlock.

According to the 2012 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report 'Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage', every year 14 million girls around the world are married before they are 18 years old. Burdened with the responsibilities we usually expect of adults, child brides often drop out of school and housework, not homework, becomes their priority.

In Nigeria, for example, a 2012 World Bank study found that when parents are asked about the reasons for their children dropping out of school, 15-20% cite child marriage (and, to a lower extent, child pregnancies). Meanwhile in Tanzania, there is a widespread (though wrongly-held) belief amongst teachers and school administrators that pregnant girls are required to be expelled by law.

Africa is blessed with the largest population of young people in its history, but the potential that this represents will be limited if child marriage persists. With education cut short, child brides do not receive the skills or opportunities that can help them to earn an income and to lift them and their families out of poverty. Put simply, child marriage is holding the continent back, but there is so much that can be done to move forwards.

End it in a generation

Let’s start with education, a key protective factor against child marriage. It is known that the longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to be married before 18 and have children during her teenage years; she continues to be viewed as a child, and is not ready for marriage.

It is crucial therefore that more girls are enrolled in secondary school, a formative time in an adolescent girl’s life. While Africa is making progress in getting girls into primary school, less than a quarter of secondary school-aged girls are in secondary education. Ministers of Education across Africa should thus strive to ensure that education plans and school curricula are tailored and relevant to adolescent girls, and that adequate facilities are available to meet their needs, such as sex-segregated toilets.

Governments also have a responsibility to ensure that girls are able to reach school in safety – for example by providing adequate transport – and that they are able to study in peace and security. The recent kidnapping of girls in northern Nigeria is a brutal reminder of the need to address the factors that threaten the confidence or ability of families to keep their children in school.

There is also the need for comprehensive reproductive health education for girls, like the programme run by the Forum of African Women Educationalists (FAWE), which helped Fidelis avoid early marriage. The programme teaches girls how to take care of themselves during their periods and gives them an understanding of their reproductive health and rights. Girls are trained to become peer educators themselves, providing girls with sanitary towels, advice and support. As Fidelis explains, “We were trained to be girls, not wives.”

Fortunately, we are beginning to see some government action. In Zambia, for instance, the government is partnering with traditional chiefs to raise awareness among parents and communities of the benefits of delaying marriage for their daughters. The African Union is also taking a stand with the launch of its first ever campaign to address child marriage, a two-year scheme that seeks to encourage African governments to develop strategies to raise awareness and address the harmful impacts of child marriage. The campaign is a signal from leaders in Africa that while child marriage is a problem across the continent, there is a shared responsibility to act.

Child marriage won't be ended overnight. It is a cultural practice that has been taking place throughout Africa – and globally – for centuries. But by providing safe, high quality and accessible education to girls, we can go far in achieving that shared vision: to end child marriage in a generation.

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