Let’s make AU summit on child marriage a real turning point

This week, African leaders have a rare opportunity to focus on a practice that has robbed millions of girls of a future and held back the development of the continent as a whole.

With the African Union Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage taking place in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, we have an opportunity to reflect not only on how far Africa has come, but also on what we all still need to do to bring an end to this practice that is having such a devastating toll on both African girls and their communities.

Let’s start with the good news. Child marriage is now on the radar of governments and leaders across Africa thanks, in part, to the African Union’s campaign launched last year, as well as the growing global momentum on the issue.

Talking about child marriage is no longer taboo, and there is much greater recognition of the damage it has wreaked on generations of girls, their families and communities.

Promisingly, 2015 saw a number of countries launch the AU campaign to end child marriage, including Chad, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Madagascar. Others, including Mozambique, Uganda and Egypt, have put in place national strategies to stop the practice.

This is all great progress. But change is happening far too slowly. Despite the promises, the rates of child marriage in Africa are still unacceptably high, with two out of every five girls in sub-Saharan Africa getting married as children.

If current trends continue, the number of child brides in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by 2050, overtaking South Asia to become the region with the largest number of child brides in the world — not a record to be celebrated.

For every one of these girls, child marriage means a bleak future, their dreams extinguished and, sometimes, their lives.

Pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for girls under the age of 18. With child brides under intense pressure to prove their fertility, they are at high risk of dying or suffering dangerous complications while giving birth before they are ready physically and psychologically. Millions of babies are in danger too. The children of child brides are much less likely to reach their first birthday than those born to women in their 20s.

By becoming child brides, millions of girls are also at risk of becoming the victims of violence, sexual abuse and sexually transmitted disease because child marriage leads to unequal power relationships between husbands and wives.

In their role as wives and mothers, many of these same girls will also be denied an education, and will lack the information and services they need to live healthy and empowered lives — including services related to their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

This will limit their future potential and their ability to lift themselves, their families and, ultimately, their countries out of poverty. Nations with a high prevalence of child marriage are also those with a low gross domestic product.

Africa’s leaders, governments and institutions have made some of the most progressive and far-reaching commitments to tackle child marriage in the world. But words, documents and launches alone will not bring the urgent change we need.

It is time for concrete action to bring about change where it can be seen — in the African communities where child marriage is still rampant.

What will it take to see real change? Government leaders must work closely with civil society organisations and young people who have a deep understanding of how this practice affects local communities, to develop effective plans and strategies to end child marriage. Our leaders need to ensure that these plans don’t just sit on shelves, but are well resourced and implemented with the right partners.

We need to put in place programmes that empower girls, making them aware of their rights before they are married — while also supporting the millions of girls who are already married. But we also need to work with families and communities so they understand that alternatives to child marriage will benefit not only their daughters but their families and communities.

We must also provide health services and access to education to give girls alternative options to child marriage, and help them stay healthy and safe. And, of course, we need supportive laws and policies that make it illegal to marry below the age of 18, and that support the rights of married and unmarried girls.

When governments start working together with civil society, community and religious leaders, parents — as well as boys and girls themselves — to address all these elements, we will truly see transformational change and a significant reduction in child marriage.

Child marriage is not just a concern for Africa. It is a global issue. But Africa has an opportunity to lead the way in making change happen. In Lusaka this week, we need African leaders to seize that opportunity and commit to turning their promises into action.

Quite simply, the future of generations of African girls and the continent itself is at stake.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda is African Union Goodwill Ambassador for Ending Child Marriage and Lakshmi Sundaram is executive director of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 500 civil society organisations from over 75 countries committed to ending child marriage