UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) welcomed the first African Union campaign to end child marriage launched in Addis Ababa today.
“Before we heard concerned individuals from Africa raising their voices. What we are seeing today is an Africa-wide movement of leaders and organizations collectively saying ‘No to Child Marriage,’” said Martin Mogwanja, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, speaking from Addis Ababa. “This push led by Africans for Africans must not stop until every girl in every family and every community has the right to reach her 18th birthday before getting married.”
Although civil society actors have been pressing hard on the issue of child marriage for several years, it is the first time that such a large range of government officials, organizations, United Nations agencies and individuals, including youth and children, vow to collectively end a practice that cuts short the childhood of over 17 million girls – 1 in 3 – across the continent.
“Data makes it clear that child marriage is first and foremost a grave threat to young girls’ lives, health and future prospects and a breach of girls’ fundamental human rights”, said Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, UNFPA Regional Director for East and Southern Africa region. “The costs of inaction, in terms of rights unrealized, foreshortened personal potential and lost development opportunities, far outweigh the costs of interventions. Together we can end child marriage, it is happening in Ethiopia, in Malawi, in Niger and in so many other countries.”
The campaign is set to run for an initial period of two years with national launches anticipated in 10 countries. Additional countries are also poised to join the movement. Policymaking and grassroots efforts aim to enhance awareness across the continent of the impact of marriage on children and their societies. As girl brides often come from the most marginalized families in African societies, it will require strong and sustained political commitment to adopt appropriate legal, institutional, social and economic measures to keep them away from child marriage.
Globally, 9 out of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are found in Africa –namely Niger (75 per cent), Chad and Central African Republic (68 per cent), Guinea (63 per cent), Mozambique (56 per cent), Mali (55 per cent), Burkina Faso and South Sudan (52 per cent), and Malawi (50 per cent).
“It was a forced marriage, and I suffered a lot,” said Barira, now 17, who ran away after being married to an abusive man in Niger at the age of 15. “For no reason he was threatening me every time I opened my mouth. I ran. I met people on the road who brought me back to my parents. They wanted me to go back and live with him but I refused. They insisted, arguing that he was a member of the family and that I was not in a position to say no. I couldn’t accept because he was hitting me… It was a lot of suffering.”
Aside from UNFPA and UNICEF, the Campaign brings together a large range of partners, including the Ford Foundation, UNECA, Save the Children, Plan international, Africa Child Policy Forum (ACPF) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).