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Opinions of Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Columnist: Anna Nabere

Leave no child behind, a God-given assignment

“Leave No Child Behind” was the theme of this year’s International Day for the African Child which was celebrated on the 16th of June 2018 in Ghana and all over the continent. The theme sought to drum home the point that more needs to be done to protect the African child and ensure they are not disadvantaged in any way. Let’s all admit that poverty is a lot more widespread in Africa compared to Europe, America and other parts of the world.

And so, it will be a lot more difficult for a child to live life to the fullest here in Africa than in other parts of the world. This makes the African child such a delicate child that deserves a lot more attention and care to be able to live their lives fully. That is why the decision of the African Union to set this day aside to celebrate the African child is such good news.

As someone who has worked as a development practitioner for many years, I am convinced one of the biggest problems militating against the development of the African child which should be tackled head-on is child marriage. If we want to ensure no child is left behind, all hands must be on deck and everyone must be ready to help root out child marriage in our society.

Child marriage is simply defined as marriage in which one or both parties are below the age of 18. It is a global problem recognized as one of the major impediments to the development of countries. According to data from the United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF), 15 million girls worldwide marry before the age of 18. What that means is that 41,000 girls get married every day and 28 girls get married every minute across the world.

South Asia is the region with the highest number of child brides currently. But predictions are that the number in Sub Saharan Africa could double by 2050 which means Saharan Africa will soon overtake South Asia to become the region with the largest number of child brides in the world. African countries currently account for 15 out of the 20 countries with the highest number of child marriages.

Despite efforts to deal with this canker called child marriage, the problem refuses to go away. According to the United Nations Children and Education Fund, UNICEF, in Ghana, 27% of females (representing 1 in every 4 women) are married before the age of 18. As of 2011, the prevalence of child Marriage had increased nationwide from 25.9% in 2006 to 27%. Fresh data from 2014 puts the prevalence figure at 27.7 percent.

More often, we forget the likely impact of such situations on the development of victims. Child marriage leads to the denial of girls their right to education, health, security and the right to choose when and who to marry. Child marriage also robs children of their dignity and prevents them from realizing their full potential and contribution to society.

Child marriage is a major contributory factor to maternal and child mortality as children are less developed to take care of other human beings. And it perpetuates the cycle of poverty as teenage mothers are usually not in good positions to provide basic amenities like quality education for their children.

The main drivers of this situation of child marriage have been archaic traditions that offer girls as trophies to men. Other contributors include deeply rooted inequalities, teenage pregnancy, economic insecurity, traditional and customary practices, teen choices in search of a better life, poor parenting and ignorance or impunity of the law, as well as poor enforcement.

Our team has recently been on the ground looking into some of these incidents and what they found was staggering. A classic example which you will see in a documentary we will outdoor soon was an incident at Zameshegu in the Gushegu District of the Northern region where a 15-year-old girl in class three was snatched on her way to school and taken to the home of her supposed husband.

Her grandfather wanted to offer her to a man in another family so that one of her uncles can marry a woman in the family she was being offered to. That is not just a case of child marriage but exchange and marriage as well. And it is happening in this 21st Century. This must stop once and for all. These archaic cultures endanger the future of our children and it is time things changed.

There have been a lot of moves on the part of government to help deal with the problem but we now want to see more action beyond the paperwork. In 2014, the Ministry for Gender, Children and Social Protection established an End Child Marriage Unit to help deal with the problem. In February 2016, government launched a national campaign to end child marriage as part of a larger campaign by the African Union.

When former Gender Minister Nana Oye Lithur spoke at the United Nations in March 2016, she outlined a number of strategies to tackle the problem including the setting up of the Child Marriage Coordinating Unit; the commissioning of an Advisory Committee; the establishment of a network of stakeholders; and development of a national strategic framework. Last year, current minister Otiko Afisa Djaba actually launched the 2017 – 2026 National Strategic Framework on Ending Child Marriage in Ghana. That amounts to a lot of policy movement but now is the time when we move everything from paper onto the ground to save our girls. The time to act is now.

It was refreshing to hear the Gender, Children and Social Protection Minister Otiko Afisa Djaba say in parliament on Tuesday 18th June 2018 that; government is committed to dealing with the problem, noting, “apart from legislation and policies that allow the rights and freedom of our children, the Ministry has a comprehensive child marriage national plan to curb the menace.” We will all be glad to see her walk the talk on this.

Finally, there is evidence that lack of education is a major driver of child marriage. The statistics referenced above from 2011 also shows that 41.6 percent of women with no education in the country were married before age 18, compared to 4.7 percent of women with secondary education. We are thus calling for increased access to Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) for all young people particularly girls as a way to ensure they are adequately protected from such preys. TVET needs to be incorporated into the larger national strategy to end child marriage in Ghana.

The writer is Project Manager at the Girls Advocacy Alliance Programme which is working to ensure that girls and young women are free from all forms of gender-based violence and are economically empowered. The GAA project seeks to: end child marriage, reduce sexual violence and abuse, reduce commercial sexual exploitation of children and ensure girls and young women have increased access to technical and vocational training education (TVET) and decent work opportunities so they don’t fall prey to abuse.