As I packed my bags to begin a journey that would take me several thousand miles from my hometown in Nairobi to Casablanca, I shuddered at the thought that at the very same moment, a girl not much younger than me would begin a similar journey – an arranged marriage. The marriage would be most likely without her consent. This day would mark the end of her childhood and the beginning of a long nightmare that would quickly become her life. By the time my flight would touch down in Casablanca, 18 hours later, she would probably have consummated a marriage in which neither her mind nor her body was prepared for. The thought of this made me sick to my stomach. With this harsh reality in my mind, I joined fellow participants at the Girls Not Brides members’ meeting, resolute that ending child marriage will not be possible unless and until young people are meaningfully involved and supported.
What is Child Marriage?
Child marriage is global phenomenon defined as a formal marriage or informal union in which one of the spouses is married before the age of 18. While child marriage can affect boys and girls, it disproportionately affects the girl child. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that every year, more than 14 million adolescent and teen girls are married, almost always forced into the arrangement by their parents. It is a violation of young women’s rights and one of a number of harmful practices which harm young women worldwide. The implications of this practice on the lives of girls are many and far-reaching. Child marriage perpetuates the cycle of poverty and deep rooted gender inequalities that often lead to society having a perceived low value for women and girls. When girls are forced to marry, they often drop out of school, face serious health complications and even risk dying from early pregnancy and childbearing, and are at greater risk of HIV infection and intimate partner violence. Child brides are often isolated, with limited opportunity to engage socially and to participate in the economic development of their communities.
Young People Are Saying NO to child marriage
While the problem of child marriage is complex and sensitive, young people hold the potential to catapult worldwide efforts in addressing the problem.
First, child marriage is an issue that directly impacts the lives of young people. As such, we are able to articulate the issues in a way no adult can. Listening to young people’s voices in general is powerful in so many ways. It not only helps create a better, equal and more inclusive society but also allows young people to feel important, empowered and confident to become their own leaders. This is often leads to successful advocacy as recently witnessed in Malawi where young activists played a critical role in raising for the minimum legal age of marriage from 15 to 18 years of age in Malawi.
Secondly, young people continue to play a key role in monitoring and averting potential child marriage cases. Where countries have had laws in place to criminalize the practice, young people have been able to support each other by reporting cases of child marriages to the authorities, providing support networks, assisting peers access safe spaces and changing norms and attitudes. In a recent youth survey done by Girls Not Brides, a young participant from Uganda said: “We know who is at risk of child marriage; we hear the conversations that adults do not. Let us be the eyes and ears and the actors demanding that young people are allowed to fulfill their potential”
Lastly, by speaking out against child marriage, young people become strong role models for their peers. Kakenya Ntaiya shares her fearless journey of how escaping child marriage changed her fate forever. Through her story, Kakenya continues to inspire, motivate and empower young girls to pursue education so that they become agents of change. In 2013, she was nominated as a Top 10 CNN Hero, for her work to send girls to school and delay marriage in Enoosaen, a Maasai village in south-west Kenya. Her primary school, Kakenya Center for Excellence, currently hosts over 155 girls.
From small actions at the village level to global advocacy efforts, the positive examples of young change makers working towards ending child marriage in the community are vast and varying.
The Time to Act is NOW!
Engaging young people to end child marriage is not only the right thing to do but it is also the practical thing to do. By tapping into their knowledge and insights, diverse skills in not only mobilizing at different levels but also engaging with different groups and their potential of catalyzing behavior change in the society, the fight to end child marriage can gain a new impetus. This can be successfully nurtured through genuine youth-adult relationships, opportunities that develop meaningful skills though continual capacity building and technical support, access to decision-making platforms and safe spaces that provide emotional and physical security.
As I believe, it is possible to end child marriage in our generation. Together, let us banish child marriage to the books of history, where it belongs.
Follow @Femnetprog @GirlsNotBrides & @felogene on twitter for updates on International Day of The African Child – June 16 2015 . THEME ”25 Years after the Adoption of the African Children’s Charter: Accelerating our Collective Efforts to End Child Marriage in Africa”