We Must Educate Girls to End Child Marriage

By: Onward Chironda and Nehsuh Carine Alongifor, Women Deliver Young Leaders

Fifteen million girls are married every year before they turn 18. That means 15 million childhoods interrupted, 15 million lives forever changed. Child marriage is a violation of girls’ rights. It disrupts their access to education, jeopardizes their health, and makes them vulnerable to violence. It also keeps girls from reaching their full potential and from fully contributing to the social and economic growth of their families.

The very First African Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa took place in the New Government Complex in Lusaka, Zambia during the last week of November 2015, and it featured participants from 52 African countries and 16 other countries across the globe. The Summit was attended by three African First Ladies from Ethiopia, Zambia, and South Africa. The Summit was opened by His Excellency, Mr. Edgar Lungu, the President of the Republic of Zambia, who pledged his commitment to end child marriage in Zambia and urged other African leaders to do the same if Africa is to develop.

The Summit aimed to ultimately secure and renew commitments from stakeholders to accelerate an end to child marriage. Traditional leaders, young people, African First Ladies, and other dignitaries highlighted the need to empower and educate young girls as a critical tool in that effort. Youth participation was at the forefront, with young people actively providing their input on how best to address the harmful practice of child marriage.

There were many inspiring and moving stories, including that of Fati, a 20 year-old woman from Niger who at age 12, was forced to marry a man who already had two wives and nine children. After Fati gave birth, she got a divorce and continued her studies. She is excelling in secondary school. There were many more testimonies of girls who wanted to continue their studies but child marriage almost shattered their dreams.

Educating girls is possible if we are able to end harmful practices that don’t allow girls to have equal educational opportunities with boys. The Youth Outcome Statement of the Summit emphasized that everyone has a role to play in ending child marriage, from international and local organizations, to communities themselves, including religious and traditional leaders, parents, men and boys, and girls themselves.

It is therefore crucial for governments, civil society, religious and traditional leaders, parents and guardians to ensure that girls have access to quality education and health services, including reproductive health services, as well and economic development opportunities. We must empower girls to be able to say no to marriage, as well as establish and implement laws and policies that protect girls and prevent child marriage.

Education is vital to ensuring a better quality of life for girls and a better world for all people.  In country after country, educating girls has yielded spectacular social benefits for the current generation and those to come. If a girl child goes to school, the risk of child marriage is six times less than if she does not. An educated girl tends to marry later and have healthier children. The children she does have will be more likely to survive, as they will be better nourished and better educated. She will be more productive at home and better paid in the workplace. She will be better able to protect herself against HIV/AIDS and to assume a more active role in social, economic and political decision-making throughout her life. All in all, sending a girl to school and making sure she completes secondary education is an important strategy to slow down and ultimately end child marriage.

The First African Girls’ Summit served as a pivotal moment in African socio-economic and socio-political dynamics and development, and may ultimately enhance the continental awareness on the cost of not ending child marriage. On the heels of this Summit, it is imperative not just to commit to ending child marriage, but to take action. Child marriages won’t end simply because of commitments, but because there is action. It is high time we join hands together to fight this practice at every level of influence.

The cost of inaction is high.

Women Deliver would like to thank Girls Not Brides for inviting Women Deliver Young Leaders to take part in the Summit, as well as the young activist training. To learn more about this incredible event, please see the full recap of the Summit’s highlights here.

Onward Chironda is a Women Deliver Young Leaders and the Executive Director of My Age Zimbabwe Trust, a youth-led organization committed to using volunteerism and youth-friendly communication strategies to enhance youth participation and youth empowerment in developmental processes.

Nehsuh Carine Alongifor is a Women Deliver Young Leader and young feminist woman working on young people’s sexual and reproductive rights. Her efforts focus on sexuality education, gender-based violence, adolescent health, girls’ and women’s empowerment, and youth-friendly health services.

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