Posted on February 16, 2018
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‘Women and girls are Africa’s greatest untapped resource’
Joaquim Chissano (former president of Mozambique)
Think back to your 12th birthday, what did you care most about? Most kids probably wanted to celebrate with presents, cake, friends and just enjoy the love of family. The thought of marriage at that age is not likely to feature highly in the thinking of the vast majority of children in most parts of the world.
Marriage remains a very important institution across the world, symbolising the joining together of a loving happy couple who are ready to take on this responsibility of a lifetime with one another. Hence the celebration this week of ‘World Marriage Day’ which sets out to honour the union between husband and wife and the concept of marriage as one of the basis of society.
Should child marriage still be tolerated in 2018?
In parts of Africa as in some other parts of the world, marriage has come to be a source of income, with girl children married-off from the age of twelve. According to UNICEF estimates, there are 125 million women who were married as children. Child marriage still occurs for a variety of reasons, including tradition, culture and religious beliefs. But an underlying cause of child marriage, particularly in the African context, is crippling poverty.
Although progress has been made to reduce the rates of child marriage, the rate of child population in Africa is still increasing. UNICEF estimates that by 2050, Africa will have the largest number of child marriages in the world.
Our experience of working at grassroots across eight countries in Africa is that child marriage is compounded by poverty. We believe this can only be ended by affording girls the opportunity of an education. For example In Tanzania, 5 percent of girls, some as young as 11, are married by 15 and forty percent are married by the time they’re 18 years old. In Malawi, these figures are much worse, with nine percent of girls married by 15 and 42 percent by 18 years old. Though the governments of both Tanzania and Malawi have recently amended their respective constitutions to raise the legal age of marriage to 18, poverty and cultural norms have left young girls vulnerable to the practice. Imagine a poor elderly woman left to care for her young orphan grandchildren whose parents have died, arranging the marriage of the 12 year old girl will seem to make sense if it passes the responsibility for the child to her husband’s family. In return she also receives a dowry that will help to feed her and her other grandchildren. Or take the case of a father that gives up his 13 year old girl child for marriage to settle a family debt? That decision could appear to be a sensible solution for him. Clearly, in 2018, the practice of child marriage is outdated and only leads to perpetuating the cycle of poverty. We would like to see it ended.
In Malawi we have found that girls face a number of barriers to remaining in education and the country is experiencing high dropout rates among girls from early in primary school. Less than 10% of girls earn a high school diploma. Since 2015, ACT has been engaged in addressing this issue through our Ulemu project in Phalombe and Mulanje districts in the south of the country (ulemu, meaning dignity in Chichewa language). The aim is to empower girls through education and counselling in menstrual health hygiene and sanitation. The project provides personal re-useable sanitary pads for the girls, with the aim to reduce the number of days lost from staying away from school during menstruation. Loss of a quarter of school days throughout the year has a significant effect on the academic performance of girls.
Following the success of two pilot projects that we carried out in Khombwe and Namphungo in 2015/16 involving 240 girls, last October we embarked on a larger project that is targeting 1,400 girls aged 10-19 years in two secondary schools in Nyezerera, Phalombe district. While the project endeavours to introduce business and other practical skills to the girls, it also includes the Girl Shower project, which educates girls about sexual health and hygiene. A critical outcome for the Girl Shower project is to educate young girls and their families on the numerous disadvantages of child marriage. The project will also provide training for 1000 women (mother groups) to make re-useable pads for the girls participating in the project. Going forward, they will be able to use the skills to make re-useable pads which they can sell as part of a women empowerment and income generation scheme in the community.
When girls succeed, then we all succeed.
Though financial pressures are a fact of life for many in Malawi, the Ulemu Project is demonstrating to families that there are consistent and sustainable ways to generate income without having to embark on child marriages for their daughters. When girls succeed, then we all succeed: this is the philosophy behind the Ulemu Project. If girls are married before they turn 18, they are almost guaranteed to leave school early, generate little or no income for their family, and continue the cycle of poverty that they themselves are caught up in. This benefits no one in the long term.
We need your help to ensure children can be children. We need your help to give girls the opportunities they deserve. We need your help to end child marriage.
If you would like to contribute to our project to end child marriage in Malawi and other countries where ACT is working, please click here.