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Johannesburg – Without progress it could take more than 100 years to end child marriage in West and Central Africa, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has warned in a new report ‘Achieving a future without child marriage: Focus on West and Central Africa’.
 
The continued practice comes with far-reaching, life-altering consequences for millions of child brides and a crippling impact on the region’s prosperity, UNICEF said in a Monday press release.
 
“We need to shake ourselves up,” said Fatoumata Ndiaye, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director.
 
“We cannot continue to let so many of our girls miss out on their health, education, and childhood. At current rates, our report shows, it will take over 100 years to eliminate child marriage in the region – how is this acceptable?”
 
The new projections, released during a high-level meeting on ending child marriage in Dakar this week, aim to bring the spotlight on the region of the world where girls face the highest risk of marrying in childhood.
 
While the prevalence of child marriage in West and Central Africa has declined over the past two decades, progress has been uneven, and still four in 10 girls are married before the age of 18 and, of these, one in three before the age of 15.
 
West and Central Africa includes six of the 10 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world: Niger; Central African Republic; Chad; Mali; Burkina Faso and Guinea.
 
Despite the gloomy forecast, the report also emphasised that even in high prevalence countries progress was possible – if the right mix of strategies were put into place.
 
These included empowering girls, mobilising families and communities to change attitudes and behaviours, providing adequate services to those at risk and to married girls, and putting in place consistent laws and policies to protect and promote their rights.
 
Five countries in the region – Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Togo, Ghana and Rwanda – stand out with declines in the practice ranging from 40 to 60 percent in the last 25 years.
 
The education of girls was one of best strategies to delay child marriage because educated girls were able to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence they needed.
 
“Getting girls to schools should be our top priority,” said Ndiaye. “Not only because it equips girls for life, but it also helps to lift their families, their communities, their countries out of poverty.”
 
Conversely child brides were less likely to finish school, and were more likely to be victims of violence or become infected with HIV.
 
When children get married, their prospects for a healthy, successful life decline drastically, often setting off an inter-generational cycle of poverty, exacerbated by child brides often lacking the skills needed for employment.

African News Agency