File photo: Byrne says that, according to the 2015 Africa Index, nine of the world’s 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in Africa. Picture: AP

Johannesburg - Community survey 2016 results released by Statistics SA indicate that more than 91 000 girls between the ages of 12 and 17 are married, divorced, separated, widowed or living with a partner - with the last forming the majority of the group.

KwaZulu-Natal ranks the highest with 25 205 and Gauteng a close second with 15 929 from a population of three million nationwide.

“These shocking statistics paint a dire picture for the emancipation of young African children and women,” says Professor Deirdre Byrne, chairperson of the Unisa-Africa Girl Development Programme (Unisa-AGDP) launched to promote girls’ rights and highlighting gender inequalities.

Byrne says that, according to the 2015 Africa Index, nine of the world’s 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in Africa.

“Although the South African stats are lower compared to the rest of Africa, which represents 125 million of the 700 million worldwide child-brides (or 17 percent), the fact that child brides are a reality in South Africa, a country with one of the world’s best constitutions, is frightening.

“Unicef found in a study in 2015 that more than one in three of these African women and girls (at least 40 million) entered into marriage or union before the of age 15. If current trends continue, almost half of the world’s child brides in 2050 will be African.”

Byrne says child brides are a toxic combination of regressive gender norms that make families regard daughters as sources of revenue, instead of as treasured family members.

“Patriarchy, reinforced by cultural beliefs, and the values the life of a son are far higher than that of a daughter due to the status of a boy carrying the family name, continuing the family business, and contributing financially to the family home. Girls are in such an instance seen as a drain on the resources and with the father making all the decisions the girl’s prospects are grim.

“In addition the economic inequalities that besiege our society lead to poor families who do not have the resources to feed all their children, “selling” their under-age daughters to lascivious men.

"Social inequities such as this together with the high maternal mortality and violence against women, weakens a society and is not only an issue of women but also impedes the development of Africa. When women are exposed to poor health, illiteracy, lack of control over fertility and employment, or basic human rights, their children pay the price too creating a downward spiral of stagnant economical development and growth.

“The only vehicle to decreasing the number of child brides is through education and these appalling statistics only highlights the need for placing girl’s education at the top of the agenda and the relevance of launching the AGDP programme.”

Byrne says it’s vital to keep girls in school to break the cycle of poverty, abuse and child marriages. Marrying young affects a girl’s education and a third of developing countries have not achieved gender parity in primary education. “Gender equality is a fundamental human right, not a privilege. As a society we owe it to each African girl-child to protect them from marriage, violence and sexual abuse, empower them with knowledge and give them access to a life of dignity, opportunity and prosperity.”

The Unisa- AGDP initiative will consist of particular focus areas which include a scholarship programme to advance access to education, a leadership fellowship aiming to develop 5 000 leaders by 2030, a summit in December, and a community outreach to African countries.

For the leadership fellowship, application will open in January. Work will be done in partnership with strategic partners across Africa to identify five high-calibre individuals aged 18 to 25.

The scholarship programme aimed at high school leavers will launch in September next year providing girls from impoverished areas and refugee camps the opportunity to study through Unisa."We simply cannot turn our back on the reality of the impoverished lives of so many African girls and women,” says Byrne.

The Star

For more information, see www.unisa-agdp.org, or e-mail [email protected]