No one should marry under the age of 18, and there should be no argument about that

Every two seconds, a girl becomes a child bride. Some 15 million girls are being married every year before they reach the age of 18. In most cases, this happens against the will of the girls themselves.

Child marriage usually has serious consequences for the health, education and future opportunities of girls: Early pregnancy, for example, is responsible for the death of 70,000 adolescent girls every year.

Girls and young women often have to leave school when they are pregnant or married, denying them their right to an education. Most cruelly, an estimated 150 million girls have experienced rape or other forms of sexual violence, and in many cultures they are forced to marry the perpetrator.

Africa, unfortunately, leads the pack for this ignominy, as seven of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriages are located south of the Sahara.

Against this backdrop, the African Union will host the First African Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa this week in Zambia. The meeting will bring together senior members of African governments, social and economic decision-makers and civil society representatives. The meeting is expected to send a strong message to the people of this continent: child marriage must be recognised for what it is — a serious violation of human rights.

We welcome this bold and inspiring step by the AU, as it comes less than five months after the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted a substantial resolution dedicated to child, early and forced marriage. The African Union is also spearheading a continental campaign to outlaw child marriages.

In the light of the glaring numbers, the Girls’ Summit is timely and significant, but it will take more than a meeting and declarations on paper to eradicate child marriage.

Marriage is, arguably, one of the most important life transitions for a girl. If it takes place without her consent, it signifies an immediate and long-term disempowerment, a violation of rights that is symptomatic of entrenched discriminatory social norms. The transformation of these deep-rooted practices and the underlying mind-set calls for a broad strategy.

First and foremost, African governments need to continue investing in education and to eliminate barriers that limit access to education for girls. Research shows that children who are married off early are unlikely to let their children go to school.

Girls without an education are six times more likely to be married before the age of 18. On the other hand, the more education a girl receives, the more likely she is to delay pregnancy and childbirth.

African governments must also continue tackling poverty. Early marriage of girls occurs most frequently in the poorest households because the bride price is an attractive source of income.

An analysis of data across 78 developing countries shows that 54 per cent of girls in the poorest 20 per cent of households are child brides, compared with only 16 per cent of girls in the richest 20 per cent of households.

To fight early child marriage, African governments must support services that give girls access to information on sexual and reproductive health, as well as services to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  

At the same time, African states will need to review their legal systems to ensure there are no weaknesses that allow the continuation of early child marriage. Dual legal systems (customary and statutory law) weaken enforcement through lenient penalties and inconsistencies in administering justice. A clear legal commitment to a minimum age of 18 for marriage of both girls and boys has to be established.

In order to allow for implementation, African governments must ensure that all children are registered and receive a certificate at birth. A missing proof of age frequently constrains legal action to prevent child marriages.

A strategy like Plan International’s 18+ Programme, which focuses on Southern Africa, seeks to end child marriage in Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique. It contributed significantly to persuading the Malawian parliament to pass a law to declare 18 the minimum legal age for marriage.

Now is the time to bring all actors together and tackle the issue of early child marriage across the continent.

Roland Angerer is Plan International´s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa