THE 11th of October marks the first ever International Day of the Girl Child, as designated by the UN General Assembly in November 2011.
The day was designated to raise awareness of the situation of girls around the world. This is in recognition by the United Nations of the fact that empowerment of and investment in girls is critical for economic growth, the achievement of millennium development goals, including the eradication of poverty and extreme poverty, as well as the meaningful participation of girls in decisions that affect them.
The inaugural theme for International Day of the Girl Child is My Life. My Right. End Child Marriages.
Child marriage is a harmful practice that devastates the lives of millions of girls who are married off each year, often to older men and usually with little say in the matter. The emphasis is on the fact that child marriages are a violation of the girl’s human rights, a child who is too young to bear the responsibilities of marriage and bearing children.
Child marriage is any marriage carried out below the age of 18 years. The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights states that marriage should be “entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses”.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as “every human being below the age of eighteen unless under the law applicable to the child majority is attained earlier”.
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against women outlaws child marriage, and stipulates 18 years as the minimum age for marriage for both males and females. At 18 years a young person would have attained full maturity and capacity to act on issues that directly affect him or her.
Child marriages negatively impact on the progress of the MDGs.
Child marriages are a fundamental human rights violation and impacts on all aspects of a girl’s life. It denies the girl child her childhood, disrupts her education, limits her opportunities, increases her risk of violence and abuse, and jeopardises her health. Consequences of early child marriage include early pregnancy and childbearing, heightening the risk of maternal deaths and disability, violence and HIV infection.
Despite having health, social and economic implications on a girl’s life, child marriages also negatively affects a country’s social and economic development goals. One of the key reasons the United Nations General Assembly designated October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child was in recognition of the fact that investment in girls is crucial for the achievement of millennium development goals.
Poverty is one of the key reasons girls are married off at a young age. In such circumstances a young girl is considered either as a poverty mitigation measure through the family receiving lobola or as a poverty coping strategy through reducing costs associated with bringing her up as feeding, clothing and educating the girl child will be considered costly.
The Herald of September 5 2011, in an article entitled, 20 underage girls forced into marriage, reported that girls aged 10 to 15 were being married off at Somerby Estate, which is just a few kilometres away from Harare because of poverty.
This clearly indicates that child marriages are a serious problem in the country. It also dispels the myth that child marriages only happen in religious settings as the Somberby community is a mixture of people from different backgrounds.
The irony is that in most cases the girl is married off for an insignificant amount of money which will not make a difference in the family’s economic status.
Instead of eradicating poverty, child marriages end up perpetuating the circle of poverty as child wives have limited income options, limited skills, education and decision-making powers.
Boys who enter in early marriages may also suffer financially.
They might have to curtail their education sooner that they want.
However, boys normally have an option of leaving their wives with their parents’ and can go and seek employment or continue with their education, an option which is not always available for the majority of young wives.
Child marriages curtail a girl’s right to education as child wives are normally withdrawn from school before they have completed
either primary or secondary education.
In Zimbabwe the minimum entry qualification for most jobs or trainings is five ordinary level subjects without which one’s opportunities are limited. Even if a child or teenage mother would like to continue with her education discriminatory policies, unfavourable school environment and limited community support makes it impossible for her to do so. In most cases parents, teachers and the community support the expulsion of pregnant girls from school, rationalising the choice by stating the need to uphold moral standards and prohibiting teenage sex.
With one in 10 girls aged 16 already pregnant or having started childbearing it shows that these moral norms have been breached.
The sad part is that the adult men and even teachers who might be responsible for these teenage pregnancies go unpunished.
If we are to achieve MDG 3 on universal access to education, there is need to create an enabling environment for child mothers to complete their education as recommended by the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which calls upon all parties to ensure that child mothers are given an opportunity to continue with their education.
Child marriages by their very nature are evidence of gender inequality and disempowerment of the girl child. To be able to eliminate gender inequalities and empower women, they should have access to basic human rights such as education and health as well as access to critical social and economic resources and opportunities. Also, child mothers are more at risk of experiencing domestic violence which further disempowers them.
According to the Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey 2010/11, about half (48%) of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 years have experienced physical or sexual violence perpetrated by their spouse.
Children of child mothers are more likely to be premature and have a low birth weight. Additionally, because child brides are more vulnerable to HIV, there is an increased risk of mother to child transmission of HIV.
Currently, in Zimbabwe one in 12 children die before his or her fifth birthday. Ending the practice of child marriages will ultimately contribute towards MDG 4 in reducing child mortality figures. Maternal mortality is one of the key challenges Zimbabwe is facing with about one in 10 women dying every day of pregnancy–related complications.
Child mothers have double the chance of dying during and after childbirth, and suffer more from maternal disabilities.
Comparing with women above 20, girls aged 10 to 14 are five to seven times more likely to die from childbirth and girls aged 15 to 19 are twice likely.
To end child marriages, policies and programmes must educate communities, raise awareness, engage local and religious leaders, involve parents, and empower girls through education and employment. Child marriages are real and a human rights violation.
It is also a complex problem that requires involvement and engagement of all parties including traditional leaders, religious leaders, communities, government, non-governmental organisations, the girl child and all other stakeholders so that practical ways are identified to reduce child marriages.
There is need for improvement on data collection systems so that we have relevant data speaking to the extent of the problem of child marriages. Above all, the rights of the girl child must be respected and we should let girls be girls not brides.
Child marriages a hindrance to the girl child: Saywhat
AS a youth organisation working towards a gender just society with students who enjoy their sexual and reproductive health, Saywhat joins the world in commemorating the world day of the girl child. In this respect, we say an educated girl child is in a position to claim and enjoy her sexual and reproductive health rights.
As Saywhat, we believe one of the best ways to liberate the girl child from all forms of bondage is through education. Education not only opens doors of opportunities in their career, but it is the passport to attain independency from patriarchal inspired male dominion that has made women vulnerable to abuse over the past years.
Early child marriages are one of the biggest barriers towards the social transformation of women from their current lowly state to citizens who also contribute meaningfully to the economy and development of the nation.
Educated women stand a better chance in terms of accessing resources, attaining economic independence and in the process raise their social status. Research has shown that educated women are more in a position to negotiate for safer sex, and have an enhanced understanding of contraception, family planning and other decision-making powers. This makes educated women less vulnerable to HIV and Aids and other STIs.
As Saywhat, we say stop early child marriages and give the girl child access to education from primary level to tertiary level. Education is the most powerful tool with which to empower the girl child.