28 May 2019

Forced and child marriage in Africa as a manifestation of gender-based violence and inequality

Forced and child marriage practices exists in Africa and other parts of the world due to a range of causes, including poverty, perceived lack of future prospects, and conflict, but most commonly, such practices are driven by social and cultural patterns that reinforce gender inequality.

Zainab Oussman, 16, in the village of Kwassaw, Niger. She was 14 when her family tried to marry her away. But she refused, and stayed in school. She’s now starring in a video that aid workers are using to convince villagers to stop marrying their women away at early marriages.Nearly 60% of all girls in Niger are married off before the age of 15, some as young as seven or eight. Photo Credit: Sudarsan Raghavan/ The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Forced and child marriage practices exists in Africa and other parts of the world due to a range of causes, including poverty, perceived lack of future prospects, and conflict, but most commonly, such practices are driven by social and cultural patterns that reinforce gender inequality.

This essay was first published in the 2018 Global Slavery Index.

Forced marriage disproportionately affects women and girls around the world and is most prevalent in Africa. The Global Estimates of Modern Slavery estimate that globally 13 million women and girls were living in a forced marriage on any given day in 2016, representing 84 percent of the total 15.4 million victims of forced marriage.  Of those, an estimated 37 percent were children at the time the forced marriage took place, with 44 percent being forced to marry before the age of 15 years. Girls were much more likely to be married off against their will: of all child victims of forced marriage, 96 percent were female, and 4 percent were male.

The prevalence of forced marriage among all world regions is by far the highest in Africa at an estimated 4.8 victims for every thousand people.  Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly affected by child marriage, with 38 percent of women married before the age of 18, and 12 percent married before the age of 15.  It is further estimated that if current progress persists, Sub-Saharan Africa will have the largest number and global share of child brides by 2050

In Africa, child and forced marriage are often promoted by longstanding religious and sociocultural traditions. For example, many communities see these practices as a way to reinforce and strengthen tribal or familial connections,  to guarantee a girl’s future and safety, or to prevent dishonour for the girl and her family in the event that she was raped or sexually abused outside of wedlock. In South Africa, there is a practice called ukuthwala by which young girls and women are kidnapped by men and coerced into marriage, often involving sexual violence or rape.  An Ethiopian tradition called telefa involves the kidnap and rape of girls; the girl’s subsequent pregnancy is then used to justify the marriage. Although made illegal in 1996, telefa is allegedly still practiced in rural parts of North-eastern Ethiopia.  In Niger, which has the highest rate of child marriage in the region with 76 percent of women being married before the age of 18,  it is often a desperate, “economic” decision for parents to sell off their daughters to wealthier men to boost their family’s income.

The right to freely and fully consent to a marriage is recognised in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. Therefore, forced and child marriage is a fundamental violation of human rights.

There are a variety of causes why such marriage practices exist in Africa and other parts of the world, including poverty, perceived lack of future prospects, or conflict, which can create an unsafe environment, causing parents to marry off their children early in the belief that this is the best way to protect them. Yet, there seems to be one overarching theme – forced and child marriage practices are usually driven by social and cultural patterns that reinforce gender inequality.

Simply put, women and girls are often affected by forced marriage purely because they are female.

There is abundant research demonstrating that forced and child marriage has severe physical, mental, intellectual, and emotional impacts on women and girls, altering their lives forever. They often face life-threatening health risks, such as being more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases due to forced sexual intercourse and complications during childbirth in young girls.  It robs women and girls of their educational opportunities. They either have to drop out of school to tend to home duties and raise children once they are married or were never sent to school in the first place as many parents believe an investment in their daughter’s education will be wasted if she is simply going to be a mother and wife.   Once married, opportunities for personal development are slim.

But beyond the personal impact on the victims, the subjugation of women and girls through forced and child marriage practices perpetuates gender inequality and consequently impedes development of communities, nations, and the region as a whole.

Africa has had very limited success in achieving six of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including poverty, education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, and HIV/AIDS   – all of which are issues related to forced marriage. Efforts such as the African Union’s Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa and Nigeria’s National Strategy to End Child Marriage 2016-2021 are encouraging developments sending a clear political message that such practices must be ended. Yet, it is to be seen if the growing support from African leaders can translate into fundamental, bottom-up change in attitudes toward forced marriage and the status of women. Community empowerment programs play an important role in changing perceptions of gender equality and tackling harmful practices toward women, such as forced and child marriage, at a grassroots level. For example, the Tostan program, which operates in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, and the Gambia, aims to bring about social transformation through education and respect for human rights. The program has been found to empower women and girls and reduce rates of child marriage.

It seems clear that tackling poverty and guaranteeing better access to education for all women and girls must, among others, be part of the solution to combatting forced marriage. But if Africa is to be successful in realising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the elimination of modern slavery (SDG 8.7) and the elimination of child, early and forced marriage (SDG 5.3), a change in deeply rooted cultural perceptions and attitudes toward women and girls is vital.