In Ethiopia, abduction and forced marriage were widely practiced in rural areas until they were outlawed in 2004, at least officially, Associated Press reports, according to USNews.
South Africa has a liberal constitution and many laws protecting children, but the traditional practice of “ukuthwala” often supersedes modern laws, according to the Commission for Gender Equality. Ukuthwala is the practice of abducting young girls and forcing to marry, often with parental consent.
Mozambique has no laws preventing child marriages and existing child protection laws are full of loopholes, said Carla Mendonca, a child protection specialist for UNICEF Mozambique. If those with power in a community decide to marry a girl off in a traditional ceremony, with or without her consent, lawmakers cannot intervene.
In Zimbabwe, early marriage is seen as a way to avoid sin, often encouraged among the 1.2 million followers of churches that combine evangelical Christianity and traditional African beliefs, according to Human Rights Watch, AP reports. Church leaders enforce virginity testing rituals on girls as young as 12.
“The problem is that girls and women are not allowed to speak,” a church elder told Human Rights Watch. “If a man stands up in church and says God showed him in a dream that he should marry a certain girl, then that is God’s commandment which must be obeyed.”
An estimated 125 million African girls are child brides, and that number is expected to increase to 310 million within 35 years, creating a legacy of “lost childhoods and shattered futures,” according to a UNICEF report. The New York-based United Nations Children’s Fund provides humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries. The report is demanding more aggressive government actions to end the practice on the continent, AP reports.
The legal age for marriage is 18 in most African countries, but laws are rarely enforced since the practice of marrying children is upheld by tradition and social norm, according to the African Union.
Girls all over Africa are married off to pay off family debts or simply because it’s tradition, says UNICEF. These child brides have an increased risk of violence, poverty and HIV, AP reports.
In Mozambique, almost half the women age 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF. It’s one less mouth to feed and a windfall from the dowry. Child marriage is a way out of poverty for the family.
Daughters are often used to pay off a family debt, said Pascoa Claudino Sumbana Ferrao, Government Director in Inhambane City, AP reports. “Mostly it’s a situation where the mother herself was given away as a little girl, so they think it’s normal. It becomes something generational.”
A coalition of churches in Zimbabwe is trying to stop the practice of child brides but is facing resistance to change, like many opponents in Africa.
“We are trying to change and stop child marriage in our churches, but we face a lot of resistance from some churches who hold on to many beliefs that justify exploitation of girls,” said Archbishop Johannes Ndanga, who admits he used to supervise virginity tests.
In Lusaka, the first African Girls Summit on Ending Child Marriage wrapped up today. There were plenty of ideas and debate at the two-day summit Nov. 26-27, but the discussions were at times depressing, AlJazeera reported.
Zambian President Edgar Lungu said he’s not interested in curbing the vice of child marriage but in eliminating it. He said he wants “to make sure my government has developed a strategy to end child marriage which will be launched soon,” AlJazeera reported.
Lungu said child marriage is a violation of children’s rights perpetuated by people who don’t understand the importance of protecting children’s rights.
The African Union said child brides are more likely to die of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and of having babies will a low birth weight or stillborn.
They’re pulled out of school and without an education, can’t contribute to their country’s growth.
There’s hope that awareness of the scale of the problem will help, but all the good intentions in the world won’t be effective without the creation and the enforcement of the right laws, starting with the government, AlJazeera reported.
The summit’s goal was to secure or renew commitments from governments to invest more on ending child marriage in Africa, according the the African Union.
Child marriage is deeply rooted in gender inequality (gender-based violence and gender discrimination), poverty, tradition and culture, the A.U. says. The practice is most common in rural areas, where prospects for girls can be limited. In many cases, parents arrange these marriages and young girls have no choice.
Girls and women have the right to live free from violence and discrimination and achieve their potential, the A.U. says.
The A.U. enacted the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa on May 29, 2014.
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