Cape Town - Spare a thought for the 130 million child brides and nearly 140 million girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa, of which over 40 million have experienced both harmful practices.
Spare a thought for the nearly 2 million child brides in South Africa, where 364 000 were married or in union before the age of 15 and 1.6 million before the age of 18, where one in 28 young women were married or in union in childhood.
One of the oft forgotten aspect of the gender discourse is this pernicious practice of child and forced marriages. A staggering 650 million girls and women alive today were married in childhood.
These statistics of shame highlighted in three distressing reports by Unicef, the UN child protection and advocacy agency, of which the key one is “Towards Ending Harmful Practices in Africa – A Statistical Overview of Child Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation”, coincided with the marking of the Day of the African Child and our own Youth Day.
Child marriages tragically is still practised today in many countries including in the US, Iran, Afghanistan, India et al under various guises – cultural traditions, legally sanctioned exceptions to the laws relating to the age of consent, poverty alleviation and substitution socio-metrics and even religious justification, albeit based on self-serving ignorance.
The reality is that millions of young girls are deprived of their inalienable right to their childhood on the journey to adulthood because of the perverse lust of patriarchy and socio-economic and cultural factors that affect their and their families’ daily lives beyond their control.
They are the true marginalised “wretched of the Earth”.
Child marriage and female genital mutilation, says Unicef, are “harmful practices rooted in gender inequality.
“These practices limit opportunities for girls and women to reach their full potential in terms of health, education, income, equality and a life free from violence. Across Africa, girls and women continue to experience these harmful practices with alarming regularity”.
Why is Africa seemingly signalled out?
According to Unicef, globally, Africa has the highest levels of child marriage and FGM. Their prevalence varies widely across the continent by region, country or community.
The Sahel countries, Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia have the highest incidence of child marriages. Tunisia, Algeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Namibia have the lowest percentages of the practices. For FGM, there is no available data for most of the continent, but for those countries in West Africa, Horn of Africa and those bordering the Red Sea, the statistics are shocking, with Somalia, Djibouti, Guinea, Mali and Egypt sharing this league table of shame.
Progress towards ending these practices is mixed. Some African countries have made impressive advances in upholding girls’ and women’s rights, while in others, there is still much that needs to be done.
The UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5.3 and the African Union Agenda 2063 Goal 17 of gender equality – to which most African countries have signed up –promises to eliminate the practices of child marriages and FGM by 2030, and 2063 respectively.
But as the latest Unicef data shows, unless African countries take urgent action, the chances of upholding these UN and AU promises to girls and women are remote. Progress is currently too slow to reach the SDG target by 2030.
Spare indeed a thought for the nearly 2 million child brides in South Africa! No mention at all in the numerous speeches by President Cyril Ramaphosa and his ministers on Youth Day. As if child marriages dare not speak its name or the practice does not exist or it can be “tolerated” for the greater good of social cohesion or because progress towards its elimination is good.
The only fleeting reference to gender was when Ramaphosa reminded that “we need young people who will stand up to, and put an end to gender-based violence and femicide”.
The Unicef report revealed that South African girls most susceptible to child marriages are those from the poorest backgrounds with little or basic primary education, but prevalent in both rural and urban areas. A staggering 62% experienced intimate partner violence in the past 12 months, and 28% gave birth before the age of 18.
The average annual rate of reduction in child marriages in South Africa was 4.6% in the past 26 years; 6.7% in the past 10 years; but it needs to reduce by 9.1% over the next eight years to have any chance of meeting the child marriage elimination target of the UN’s SDGs.
Child marriages, whether forced or otherwise are a form of oppression, abuse and violence against children.
It is anathema to any free society. As Unicef maintains, “It is a violation of human rights that impacts girls into adulthood and extends to the next generation.”
After all, it was Madiba who once observed that “the true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children”!
Parker is a writer based in London