Child Marriage highly prevalent in The Gambia

With Rohey Jadama

Welcome to another edition of Children’s Corner. In today’s edition, we are focusing on the issues arising from Child Marriagethe celebration of Day of the African Child organised by the Young People in the Media in Mansakonko, Lower River Region a week ago.

This year’s Day of the African Child focuses on “25 years after the adoption of the African Children’s Charter: Accelerating our collective efforts to end child marriage in Africa”. 

Child marriage is a harmful traditional practice that robs girls of their education, their health and their future. Every year, there are 15 million child brides. Arrangements are made by parents unbeknown to the girl child. “That can mean that one day, she may be at home playing with her siblings and the next, she’s married off and sent to live in another village with her husband and his family – strangers, essentially. She is pulled out of school. She is separated from her peers. And once married, she is more likely to be a victim of domestic violence and suffer health complications associated with early sexual activity and childbearing.” (ICRW)

All African countries are faced with the challenge of child marriage. I believe with concerted efforts, raising community awareness on the issue, educating the girl child and providing her with employment and the participation of communities to abandon the practice we will see the change that we want.

The statistics revealed by the statements made on the occasion is quite staggering. Mrs. Sara Beysolow Nyanti, UNICEF Country Representative in her statement presented by Mr Salifu Jassey, Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF, indicated that data from 2013 Demographic and Health Survey show that 16% of women aged 20-49 years married before their 15th birthday and 41% of women of the same age group got married by age 18. This figure is high compared to the average for developing countries. According to ICRW “one third (33%) of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 (11%) are married before the age of 15.”

Child marriage is rampant even though the practice is inconsistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Children’s Act which have provisions designed to protect the girl child from early marriage. These include the right of children not to be separated from their parents against their will and the right of children to freely express their views on matters that affect them. The point is that though the Children’s Act recognises the free and full consent of the parties to a marriage, “consent cannot be free and full when one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about life with a partner and no child can give consent to marriage due to their age of maturity.” (Mrs Fanta Ceesay)

Indeed, under the CRC, the state is obligated to take measures to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children, including marriage.

Furthermore, efforts must be made not only to sensitize communities but to uplift the economic status of the girl child as child marriage is often exacerbated by their economic status.

The Executive Director of Operation Save the Children Foundation Mrs Fatou Mass Jobe who read a statement on behalf of Madam Zainab Yahya Jammeh at the occasion did indicate the need to invest in the girl child in order to speed up the pace of progress in the fight against child marriage. “We need to increase the investments that provide quality services to girls and expand the opportunities for their future. Quality education opens the way for girls to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. The evidence is unequivocal; education saves lives and transforms lives, it is the bedrock of sustainability.”

The statement did outline adverse effects of child marriage. It noted that child marriage threatens efforts to improve maternal health across Africa. It added that child brides face higher risks of death and injury in pregnancy and childbirth, with girls under 15 being five times more likely to die in child birth than women in their 20s. It went further to indicate that even the babies delivered by mothers are at risk too: When a mother is under 18, her baby is 50% more likely to die in her first delivery than a baby born to older mothers.

She advocated for a joint effort to end child marriage. “Let us join hands and send Child Marriage to the dustbin of history,” she said.

The statement of the UNICEF Country Representative indicated the factors that motivate child marriage. She said, “Child marriage is often instigated by poverty, lack of education, gender stereotyping, discrimination and negative cultural practices, denying girls the right to live healthy and fulfilling lives.”

She said UNICEF will intensify its advocacy to end the practice. “UNICEF will reinforce its advocacy for an end to the practice through stronger collaboration with the government of the Gambia and national and international partners while continuing to harness the leadership of community and religious leaders as well as community members to change their attitude towards practices that hurt children, especially girls child.”

The UNICEF Country Representative has recognised in her statement the large number of girl survivors of child marriage and admits that a lot still remains to be done. She advocates for more explicit legal provisions. “We need to tighten our laws to ban child marriage and we need to make provision in the Children’s Act much more definitive by making child marriage illegal and void from start,” she said.

Peering of African states can also facilitate the solution of problems. The Director of Social Welfare Fanta Bai Secka,  said as a matter of concern the member nations of the African Union have formally adopted a common position on ending child marriage in Africa. She said the African common position was adopted at the 25th ordinary session of the AU Assembly of heads of state and government, which was held in South Africa in June 2015. Through this affirmative instrument, the African Union is urging its member states to establish comprehensive action plans to end child marriage, including establishing and enforcing laws which set the minimum age for marriage at 18. The AU will monitor progress toward this goal as part of its Agenda 2063 strategy.

The involvement of communities is important in dealing with the issue of child marriage. This is what Mrs Fanta Ceesay said in her statement: “The protection of children from abuse and exploitation can only be effective if communities recognise the problem and actively participate in their protection.  Community members need to understand that every child is a potential victim of sexual abuse and exploitation if they are not provided with basic needs and an enabling environment. Supporting families in this regard is critical to protecting children and the success of this intervention would rest squarely on the shoulders of families and communities.”

In conclusion, the issue of child marriage requires a multifaceted approach. We need to go beyond sensitization and participation of communities and putting an effective legal framework in place.

Not only must the girl child be educated, there must provision for employment.

The Day of the African Child has its origin. In the statement read by Madam Fatou Mass, she asserted that the “International Day of the African Child is an occasion not only to celebrate, but is also a day set aside to reflect on the 1976 uprising in Soweto, when a protest by vulnerable school children in South Africa against apartheid-inspired education resulted in the mass killing of unarmed young protesters by the police. It is also a day to reflect on the welfare of children generally, particularly in Africa.”