Speaking Up for Girls' Rights on the Day of the African Child

Graca Machel, widow of late South African president and global icon, speaks at a conference on improving maternal, newborn an
Graca Machel, widow of late South African president and global icon, speaks at a conference on improving maternal, newborn and child health, at the Sandton Convention Center, in Johannesburg, on June 30, 2014. Graca Machel, on June 27 announced she will resume her public life after completing a six-month mourning period for 'best friend.' AFP PHOTO/MUJAHID SAFODIEN (Photo credit should read MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty-five years ago, advocates successfully galvanized African leaders behind the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The treaty was borne out of a need to promote a rights agenda that was relevant to Africa. The Charter revisited most ideals articulated in the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), though went a step further and boldly committed to protecting children from harmful cultural and social practices. Article 21 explicitly refers to protecting Africa's children against child marriages, betrothal and urging countries to push the minimum age of marriage to 18 years.

Today, as Africa simultaneously commemorates the Day of the African Child and the 25th anniversary of the Charter, we have a rare opportunity to reflect on both progress and challenges in responding to child marriages in Africa.

We have seen, firsthand, transformations rooted in the Charter. It has laid down the foundation for numerous child rights achievements. We have witnessed a continent that is honest with itself and one that is ready to have critical conversations on social norms, on cultural practices and their impact on children's rights. We see a continent that has made huge strides in protecting its children.

Specifically, the African Union's recent campaign on child marriage has been essential for refocusing regional attention on the issue. Africa's voice on child marriages has been escalated, and there is a mounting global movement of more than 400 civil society organizations working against early marriage, while a recent resolution on ending child marriage adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council shows growing global momentum around the topic.

Yet, despite the success of the African Charter in providing a regional rubric and a platform for dialogue on child marriages, the practice remains rampant. Africa has the second highest rate of child marriage in the world after South Asia. Reports show that 39 percent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before their 18th birthdays. That's more than one in three girls. Globally, every year, 15 million girls are married before they turn 18, and it is estimated that between 2011 and 2020 more than 140 million girls will become child brides.

These staggering figures are evidence that the challenge remains enormous. And each number wears the face of a child.

Child marriage is a complex and multifaceted challenge, often urged on by economic, social and cultural factors. Combating it requires accelerating successful practices and innovative approaches.

We would suggest five attainable actions:

First, a crucial entry point to responding to child marriage is being alive to the cultural nuances that drive it. For instance, we know that in most communities child marriages are a culmination of well-orchestrated social actions, backed by established marriage customs. These customs are intrinsic and cherished by communities, often presided by family patriarchs, respectable community matrons, traditional and religious leaders who are driven by noble intentions. Communities often view child marriage as prevention to HIV, a way to safeguard young boys and girls in a fast-evolving modern world. Hence, any engagement should consider these perspectives.

As such, more support needs to be given to community leaders across the continent who are proactively coming up with alternative ways of ushering boys and girls into adulthood than early marriage. In these communities, far from the dictates of international, regional and even national laws -- where customary practices dictate maturity and readiness to marry -- such community-driven solutions would be more sustainable.

Second, closely linked to community-based efforts will be addressing the structural causes of child marriage. This includes challenging gender stereotypes, promoting gender equality and equal opportunities for girls and boys. Actions across all layers should be steeped in effective social mobilization and meaningful and sustainable partnerships between government, research institutions, civic organizations, development partners and communities.

Third, at national level, it is vital that proven efforts are strengthened. This means supporting governments in budgeting and implementation of policies, laws and strategies that prevent and counter child marriages. Robust child protection systems that track, account and safeguard children from early marriage should be strengthened. Across the continent, governments should continue investing in proven efforts such as enhancing girls' access to education and skills development.

Fourth, decisive leadership and increased political will at community, national and regional levels are paramount. The messaging on girls and boys has to change. Girls and boys should be seen as of equal value across society. It is vitally important that leaders see the link between empowered girls and stronger societies. This also means leaders should move beyond rhetoric to actual social and economic investment on curtailing child marriages. Leaders will have to engage with the powerful constituencies, such as religious and traditional leaders, in seeking change.

And finally, a continued honest and frank peer review system at the African Union level will be paramount. This will foster the adoption of policies, standards and practices on child marriages by member states through experience sharing and reinforcement of successful and best practices, and importantly, introduce collective accountability among regional leaders.

To successfully effect positive change, collective responsibility and action are essential. The nexus between governments, communities and civil society is imperative. We posit that lasting change requires leaders, development partners and communities to build consensus and agree that child marriage is detrimental to the child, family and nation. Indeed, from the matrona in a remote village to the policy maker at the African Union, a new honesty and fervency is urgently needed to address a practice that is harmful and stifling to this continent's children... and to the continent itself.

About the authors: Graca Machel is the Chair of the Graca Machel Trust, which advocates for women's and children's rights. Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala is the UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern & Southern Africa.