What will it take to end child marriage? GHA blogger, Sophie Okolo, points out the recent change in dialogue and highlights the health and economic risks of child marriage in Africa.
Early this year, the conversation about child marriage shifted from human rights to that of health and education. Child marriage is still a hot button issue in many African countries hence this change was significant. By shifting the conversation, public health professionals can address this issue in a tactful way since cultural beliefs are difficult to change. Like any important issue of our time, finding creative ways to address such issues can lead to a change of heart and eventually, cultural transformation.
Despite recent condemnation of child marriage in many African countries, tradition and beliefs continue to ruin young lives in remote regions. For example, child marriage is prohibited under Nigeria’s Child Rights Act (enacted in 23 of 36 Nigeria’s 36 states), which bans marriage or betrothal before the age of 18. But federal laws compete with age-old customs, as well as a decade of state-level sharia law in Muslim states. Last year, the Nigerian Senate came under attack for failing to include the age at which girls can get married thereby condoning child marriages. These customs and laws should be challenged although health information can go a long way in addressing this critical issue. For instance, girls who marry too young are denied the educational opportunities of their peers and are put at greater health risks, such as HIV and teen pregnancy. Teen pregnancy may lead to a difficult and prolonged labor which can result in a fistula, an abnormal connection between an organ, vessel, or intestine and another structure that causes uncontrolled urination or defecation. According to Dr Mutia, one of two practicing fistula surgeons in Zamfara, Nigeria, “fistulas can happen to anyone, but are most common among young women whose pelvises aren’t at full capacity to accommodate the passage of a child.” In the development community, studies have shown that child marriage is also linked to poverty. Rachel Vogelstein, a Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, states that “Recent research suggests that families in crisis situations are more likely to marry their daughters early, either to preserve resources by offloading economic responsibility for their girl children or in an attempt to ensure their daughters’ safety from conflict-related sexual violence.” Clearly, child marriage is a complex issue.
Although the number of global child marriages is declining, rates are staggering in countries like Chad, Niger and the Central African Republic. More than two out of every three girls are married before eighteen. Roughly half of the girls married early in Niger do so before turning fifteen. Since there is no magical solution to child marriage, combined efforts may help women and girls lead healthy and successful lives. The goal is to help African societies fully comprehend the seriousness of the issue.