Every day, an average of 21,000 girls under the age 18 are forced into marriages in the world (IPPF UNFPA 2006). And according to UNICEF, the continent that is most affected by child marriage is Africa, with over 70% of the cases. Child marriage despite being officially illegal in most African countries remains a serious social problem that destroys the future of many young girls forced in most cases to drop out schools and become wives to men generally much older than them.
Child marriage despite being a very old practice must be condemned for several reasons. The first is that it is almost always non-consenting; thus, depriving women the right to choose their spouse and that is a serious violation of Women’s Rights. Then, those little inexperienced and under-educated girls who are forced into polygamous marriages in most cases are often abused, raped and subjected to derogatory treatments of any kind. Some are reduced to sexual slaves by their "husbands" and eventually develop health problems (especially gynecological ones) sometimes causing serious disabilities and putting their wellbeing and life in danger. In addition, these girls almost always drop out of school and that is a violation of children's right to education. A girl under-educated will be less likely to get a decent job and this perpetrates in one way or another the cycle of dependency and poverty of women.
It is important to ask what motivate parents to push their children into early marriages that often do them more harm than good. First we have tradition. Yes, tradition can be very harmful at times. Some conservative societies believe that a girl who starts her period is mature enough to bear children and therefore should marry. This logic is in one way or another understandable but scientifically speaking, hormones that cause menstruation may begin their effects as early as at the age of 6. Ignorance and illiteracy are the second cause of this problem because these parents would not reason this way if they were educated and understand the science behind menstruation and the development of the human body, especially that of women. Moreover, we have the perennial problem of poverty. Oh yes, misery follows us everywhere. Most of the girls that are offered in marriage by their parents are for monetary reasons because it is done in societies where dowries exist. Dowries are gifts or money that a man donates to a family to ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage. Dowries have become a source of income for some parents who are willing to sell their daughters for a few cows, sheep or bundles of cash. In some other cases, poor parents get rid of the burden of caring for their daughters by marrying them off because they have troubles feeding themselves talk about feeding their children. Sad reality!
Finally, there is the lack of girls protection by state institutions which I believe is the most important cause. It's not overnight that we will abolish traditional retrograde practices dating centuries back. And tomorrow is the day before the eradication of poverty. However, if we have leaders that do not limit their fight against child marriage to enacting laws, but do make an effort to enforce these laws, organize awareness campaigns against this practice and take serious actions against families who engage in this practice and finally, set up shelters for those girls who manage to escape their "master husband" but end up getting re-captured because they have nowhere to run to, things could change. Sometimes you have to be tough on society for its own good. But in Africa, we have most of the time irresponsible leaders. Niger for instance which is the French-speaking African country most affected by this practice is not only the poorest country in the world but also has a president who is more interested in his personal comfort than the general welfare of his people (the President of Niger Issoufou recently bought a new presidential jet costing 21 billion FCFA to taxpayers). Nigeria, which is the headquarters of child marriage in Africa is worse because it is ruled by a group of corrupted leaders who divert billions to offer dream weddings to their daughters while that of others are reduced to sex slavery and pedophile leaders like Governor Yerima of Zamfara State in Nigeria who himself, married a 13 year old girl young enough to be his granddaughter.
How can we put an end to the suffering of these young girls forced into early marriages?
Well it starts with raising awareness about the dangers of this practice and putting pressure on our governments because we cannot get up as gods and impose our views on the societies affected by this practice. We absolutely need some form of collaboration with the governments and this is where politics plays a role. On the social level, we can implement initiatives which can couple advocacy and financial support for parents of girls in the affected communities in order to enable them to care for the girls’ education and well-being. This means strengthening the financial capacity of parents and that will certainly not be easy, but it's definitely possible.