Child Marriage: A looming global danger, a problem too long ignored

Accra, Adolescents and young people are entitled to decent livelihoods, however, girls unlike their male counterparts, face unequal risks and distinctive consequences related to the vulnerabilities they experience.

Young girls, compared to their male counterparts are also more likely to drop out of school, to marry at an early age, and to bear the consequences of poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes. They are also disproportionally vulnerable to the violations of their human rights, inadequate reproductive health services, education and subjected to child marriage, which all limits the realization of their full potentials as humans.

The causes and drivers of child marriage include religion, education, geographical location, teenage pregnancy, wealth acquisition, bride wealth betrothal and family breakdowns and parenting challenges.

The recognition that adolescent girls and young women face a complex array of issues, led the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Country Office to initiate an in-depth situational analysis of child marriages in Ghana.

The study reveals that although all African countries including Ghana were faced with the challenge of child marriage, which was a harmful traditional practice that robbed girls of their education, health and future, it was becoming a serious global concern, with statistics showing an increase in the marginalisation of women and young girls.

Child marriage, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), occurred when a person was forced into a union before the attainment of age 18, and this threatens girls’ lives and health, and limits their entire future prospects.

In Ghana one out of five girls will be married before their 18th birthday, while 25 per cent of women aged between 20 and 24 were married or in union before turning 18 years old. Five per cent of girls were married before age 15, and these were four times more likely to come from poorer households, with uneducated girls being twice more likely to marry in their childhood.

It says child marriage often led to the end of a girl’s opportunity to continue her education and therefore resulted in persistent poverty.

In developing countries, child marriage has been associated with teenage pregnancy, pregnancy-related complications such as preterm delivery, low birth weights, foetal and maternal mortality, increase in sexually transmitted infections, poverty, high school dropout rates among girls, gender inequalities, violence within marriages due to weak enforcement of laws, as well as other serious health-related complications including fistula.

The UNFPA’s situational analysis however reveals again that high rates of child marriages in Africa, combined with a rapid growth of population can have devastating human and development consequences, and warns that if urgent actions were not taken, the number of girls married as children will double by 2050. This, it said will make the continent one of the regions with the highest number of child brides globally.

In its global snapshot of the situation, the UNFPA reveals that every two seconds, a girl is married before she is physically or emotionally matured enough to become a wife or a mother. Globally, 720 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. Every year, they are joined by another 15 million child brides. This means that one in three young women alive today were married as children.

The situation, it says is getting alarming in Ghana with the country currently recording a 21 per cent national prevalence rate, which is one of the highest child marriage prevalence rates in the world.

Ghana’s 1998 Children’s Act (Act 560) and the 1992 Constitution of Ghana however, defines a child as a person below the age of 18. It however states that by age 18 young persons are expected to have developed sufficient intellectual, emotional and physical skills, and resources to fend for themselves as well as to successfully transition into adulthood. Until then, they require care from adults, support, guidance and protection. The Act therefore clearly prohibits any person from forcing a child in be betrothed or be the subject of a dowry transaction or to be married.

Aside these two documents, there are several other legal frameworks on Child Marriages which includes the Domestic Violence Act 2007, (Act 732), Child Ordinance 1951 (Cap 127), The Marriage of Mohammedans Ordinance, 1951 (Cap129), Matrimonial Causes Act, 1971, Customary Marriage and Divorce Act (Registration) Law, 1985 (PNDC 112), the African Charter on the Rights and the Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Despite all these data, a study by the Ghana Statistical Service in 2006 and 2011 showed that 4.4 per cent and 5.8 per cent of women age between 15 and 49 married by exactly 15 years respectively. In addition to this, among those age 20 and 24, the proportion who married before turning 18 years was 22 and 21 per cent respectively.

In Ghana, teenage pregnancy is strongly linked to child marriage and in 2012 alone, there were 750,000 pregnant teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years, and most of these leads to maternal deaths and various injuries including fistula. Since these young girls lack the ability, power and knowledge to abstain or negotiate safe sexual practices, they fall prey to sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and AIDS.

The study identifies the drivers and causes of child marriages as the discriminatory cultural and social norms including gender roles, limited implementation of legal and policy frameworks to protect adolescents, the inaccessible and low quality of services such as education, health and social welfare, as well as the limited economic opportunities for girls.

It suggested that strategies such as empowering girls with information, skills and support networks including the provision of safe spaces and girls clubs, provision of information on Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health (ASRH), mobilizing to educate parents and community members on the consequences of child marriage, as well as offer economic support and incentives such as the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP), for girls and their families.

Madam Otiko Afisah Djaba, Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection, as part of her advocacy to end child marriages in Ghana, recently toured various parts of the Northern Region where the problem is more prominent and declared a Zero tolerance of Child Marriage, which is hampering girl child education in these areas.

She said because child marriage often ended a girl’s opportunity to continue her education, it resulted in the persistent cycle of poverty, as child brides were denied economic opportunities that helped lifted them out of this deficiency, and they faced increased risk of violence throughout their lives due to their vulnerability.

In her interaction with the Northern Regional House of Chiefs, to garner enough support from the traditional authorities to minimize the situation, she said there was the need for a multifaceted approach to tackle the situation. She further urged the chiefs and the clergy to support government’s quest to end the widespread child marriage cases in the Region.

Government is doing its part by creating legislations. We expect our chiefs and religious leaders to complement government’s efforts by exposing the perpetrators of child marriage so as to safeguard the health and development of our young girls, she said.

According to her, the Ghana National Household Registry was to establish a single national household register, which will capture the data of all beneficiaries of social protection programmes. She called for strengthened collaborations between the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assembles (MMDAs), saying I need the full cooperation and support of all MMDAs in your Region to enable my Ministry carryout this programme successfully. In every district, we expect the assemblies to provide our staff with office space for the period that they will be working in the districts to gather data and information.

The Chief of Tamale, Naa Dakpema Dawuni Alhassan lauded the Minister’s campaign and urged government to strictly enforce laws on child marriage. Child marriage is a new thing in Dagbon and people who indulge in the practice should be made to face the law.

The UNFPA’s theory of change for Ghana suggests that for girls to fully enjoy their childhood free from the risk of marriage, they are to experience healthier, safer and more empowered life transitions while in control of their own destiny, including making choices and decisions about their education, sexuality, relationship formation or marriage and childbearing.

It suggests that there must be an acceleration of action to address child marriage in Ghana by enhancing investments in and support for married and unmarried girls alike, making visible the corresponding benefits of this assistance; engaging key actors including young people as agents of change in catalyzing shifts towards positive gender norms; increasing political support, resources, policies and frameworks promoting positive change, and improving data and evidence base.

To end child marriage also requires the engagement of the media as significant partners in shaping societal perception and social norms through the transmission of certain messages. The media’s increased advocacy on the factors fuelling the practice, the subsequent challenges and the benefits of ending the practice is very important, and must be encouraged.

Source: Ghana News Agency