Early Marriages / Child Marriages
The term child marriage is defined into early marriage and child marriage.
A report by Evke Freya von Ahlefeldt
The term early marriage refers to both formal and informal marriages that a girl enters into with a partner whether or not she has reached the age of 18 and thus cannot physically, psychologically and sociologically take on the responsibilities of marriage and childbirth. In a child marriage, on the other hand, either one or both spouses have not yet reached the age of 18 and such „marriages“ take place with or without formal registration by any authorities.
Early marriages in Africa
Early marriages have become the norm in Africa for decades and girls are being married off younger and younger. Some observers from international aid agencies now estimate that „wives“ are as young as 8 years old.
While most women in developed countries marry at a later age, in Africa many marry at an early age due to some cultural and traditional implication. Twenty to fifty percent of women in developing countries are already married by the age of 16, with the highest percentage in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Central Asia. In northern Nigeria, many parents prefer to marry their daughters at the age of 10 or younger for cultural and economic reasons. The illiteracy rate among women is three-quarters higher in northern Nigeria than in the south. Although pressure from UNICEF to build schools and preventive measures has improved the school enrolment rate for girls, the rate of school dropouts is still extremely high, probably because girls are forced into early marriage.
Also, many girls are not enrolled in schools in the first place because, on the one hand, families do not have school fees and, on the other hand, the belief prevails that girls will be married off anyway and thus do not need an education.
The negative consequences of early marriages
There tends to be a correlation between the age of marriage, level of education, poverty and health. Less educated girls tend to marry earlier and therefore often lead to health problems such as: premature births and or unwanted pregnancies. Young girls are usually forced to marry a much older man and thus have sexual intercourse. Pregnancies, abortions and miscarriages of girls just entering puberty are now commonplace. This has serious health consequences, as the girls are not yet psychologically, physically and sexually mature. Another serious issue is domestic violence, as well as sexual abuse of minors. The extremely high morbidity and mortality of mothers has been increasing for years.
In 2019, HIV prevalence in Nigeria was 1.4% of adults aged 15 to 49. Earlier estimates had given a national HIV prevalence of 2.8%. UNAIDS and the National Agency for the Control of AIDS estimate that more than one-tenth of people in Nigeria are now infected with HIV – and the trend is rising.
Prevention and education is starting to take hold
In recent years, the northern provinces of Niger and Bauchi have passed laws banning the withdrawal of children from school for married couples. However, this is not enforced. The Federal Government of Nigeria and the 19 northern provinces have embarked on an initiative to review early marriage and its impact on education (e.g. raising public awareness on reproductive health and girls‘ rights and the importance of enabling girls to complete secondary school and strengthening school-community linkages) Girls‘ Education Improvements and More Schools for Girls and Women Only. Some of these initiatives have produced positive results. Married girls and mothers who had dropped out of school have resumed school, and parents have begun to help girls complete secondary school before marriage or even attend higher education.
Impact of early marriage on girls‘ education.
School is the main institution outside the family that deals with the socialisation of young people in all dimensions of adult roles and responsibilities. Early marriage, on the other hand, denies children of school age, their right to education, the need for their personal development for adulthood and their effective contributions to the growth of their future, society and family. The right to education and health is essentially about facilitating and also enhancing the effective enjoyment of human rights. For very many poorer families, the potential education for raising a female child is too far away, so their education is not recognised as an investment. Families claim that girls‘ education only benefits the man’s household, not their parents. Some parents believe that girls do not need education for their role as wives and mothers, that education undermines cultural practices and that education teaches girls to reject traditions. However, education even at the grassroots level is not just about livelihoods and technical skills, but more importantly about creating social connections that enable one to access important resources to alleviate poverty. Education can also develop girls‘ self-esteem and confidence to express their opinions or take control of their own actions, lives and bodies. Another positive benefit of education is improved reproductive health and child survival. Educated women can then also have a say in decision-making regarding the size of their families and the spacing of children. It would also be another positive step towards information and knowledge about contraception and the health needs of their children.
Education is the most important thing people need in the 21st century to get out of the spiral of poverty and dependence. Those who know their human rights can also defend them.
Evke Freya von Ahlefeldt, UNICEF Paris 26 May 2021