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Opinions of Monday, 4 July 2016

Columnist: Samuel Adadi Akapule

Ending child, early and forced marriages in Ghana

In spite of the fact that Ghana was the first country to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which called for the abolishment of traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children, Ghana has one of the highest childhood marriages prevalence in the world.

On the National Level 25 per cent of the females between the ages of 20-25 years are married before they turned 18 years old.

According to the UNICEF 2011 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), the Upper East Region has a child marriage prevalence of 50%, the highest in the country. A greater number of girls between 15 and 18 years (27 percent) are entering marriage, often against their will. This situation is unacceptable and calls for urgent action across all sectors.

Data from the World Fertility Survey indicates that in several African continents, over 40 per cent of young women enter marriage or a quasi-marriage union by the time they reach the age of 18.

There is no hidden fact when a girl is married as a child, her fundamental rights are violated. In other words ending child marriage preserves a girl’s childhood, promote her right to an education, reduce her exposure to violence and abuse, and contribute to breaking cycles of poverty that are passed down from one generation to the next. Delaying marriage and childbirth can further protect girls from the risks of HIV infection, death during childbirth, and debilitating medical conditions like obstetric fistula.

Early Marriage is a marriage that occurs before a person reaches the age of consent 18 years. Also known as child marriage, it is the practice where one or both spouses are below the age of 18. Forced Marriage is marriage that occurs without the expressed consent of either one or both of the parties. Usually, the party whose consent is not sought is the girl and she is usually forced or coerced into marriage although some boys can be affected by this practice.

Effects of child, early and forced marriages on child development

Evidence based research has established that this negative practice is inimical to child development because child and early marriage robs the young girl of the opportunity to be physically, psychologically, emotionally and financially ready for the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing.

Secondly, early marriage increases social isolation and launches girls into a cycle of poverty, gender inequities, and higher risk of dying from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Early marriage forces young girls to assume responsibilities and handle situations for which they are often physically and psychologically unprepared to handle.

Aside the above, education which is very crucial to a prosperous life is often truncated by early marriage. It is very obvious that girls who are married are less likely to have an education.

In an interview with this Writer, the Upper East Regional Director of the Department of Children, Mrs Georgina Aberese-Ako, who confirmed this, stated that early and forced marriages are often driven by poverty leading to many parents and families’ withdrawing their daughters from school and forcing them into marriage to relieve their financial burdens.

Another major effects of early and force marriage is the health risks on these victims. To ascertain this fact, the Deputy Director of the Ghana Health Services (GHS) in charge of Clinical Care, Dr Abdula-Razak Dokurugu, on several forums held in Bolgatanga of the Upper East region, has drummed home that victims of early and forced marriages face higher risks of death in child birth due to the health complications they would have to encounter as result of their tender ages and could also be affected with HIV/AIDS.

“Child, early and force marriage is a negative social practice because these young girls lack the mental capacity to make informed decisions about their marriage partners. Many ultimately contract Vaginal Fistula during childbirth because their bodies are not yet mature and ready for the pregnancies”, he stressed.

International conventions against child, early and forced marriages

Stated earlier in this write-up, Ghana was the first country to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which called for the abolishment of traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children, yet she has one of the highest childhood marriages in the world.

In fact it should pointed out clearly here that it was due to the magnitude of the problem in the World particularly in some African countries including Ghana that led to the United Nations Human Rights Council adopting a resolution in September 2012 to combat early marriage.

The resolution recognizes child, early and forced marriage as a human rights violation that “prevents individuals from living their lives free from all forms of violence” and negatively impacts the “right to education, and the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists on the “right to free and full consent to marriage” (article 16) and states that “marriage should be entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. Where one of the parties getting married is under 18, consent cannot always be assumed to be “free and full”.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also states that , “the betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect” and calls upon states to set legal minimum age for marriage of their young daughters and sons due to strong social pressures at the community level.

Laws prohibiting child early and forced marriage in Ghana

Also, in Ghana the 1992 Constitution and the Children’s Act (Act 560) both define a child as a person below the age of 18. The Children’s Act further pegs the minimum marriage age in Ghana at 18 and frowns on children being withdrawn from school for marriage. Section 14 of the Act provides that a person shall not force a child to be betrothed, to be subject of a dowry transaction or to be married.

The Criminal Code Amendment Act (Act 554) prohibits compulsion in marriage and giving a girl out in marriage without her consent. Section 100 of the Act provides that if a female is compelled to marry another person by duress this makes the marriage void or voidable, the marriage is of no effect”. Section 109 also states that “whoever by duress causes any person to marry against his or her will shall be guilty of a misdemeanor”

Section 92 states that “a person is guilty of abduction of a female who with intent to cause her to be married to any person when he unlawfully takes her from lawful possession and care and detaining her. Section 109 also states clearly that forcing a person to marry against their will is illegal while the Children’s Act also stipulates that forced child marriage is illegal (Sec. 13 and 14).The Domestic Violence Act, (Act 732) 2007. Section 1(b) defines domestic to include” the forcible confinement and detention of another person”.

Causes of early and forced marriage

Despite these legal interventions, preventing Child Marriages in Ghana, still thrives. In an interaction with this Writer, the Upper East Regional Director of the National Commission for Civic Education, Mr Pontius Pilates Apaabey Baba, attributed the phenomenon partly to strong social and cultural norms of the people.

He stated that early and forced marriages are largely influenced by cultural beliefs, poverty and societal pressure and added that it occurs more frequently among girls who are the least educated, poorest and living in rural areas.

The Executive Director of the Rural Initiatives Self-Empowerment-Ghana (RISE-Ghana), an NGO operating in the Upper East Region, Mr. Awal Ahmed, on his part stated that a research conducted by his out reveals that poor families view girls as an economic burden while male children are valued as an asset

“Pushing girls out of their homes into child, early and forced marriages is thought to reduce the economic burden on the family. Other parents and families also think that marriage safeguards against ‘immoral ‘or ‘inappropriate behavior.’ We must therefore double our efforts to make parents understand that the trickledown effect of education girls is far more beneficial they just a few cattle”, he stated.

The role of Rise- Ghana in curbing child, early and forced marriages in Ghana

The Executive Director of RISE -Ghana , stated that to help complement the efforts of government and other stakeholders to confront the canker , his outfit with support from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives in collaboration with the Domestic violence and Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service, Department of Social Welfare and Community Development, the Ghana Education Service , managed to rescue six girls from child marriage aged between 14 to 16 years in the Kasena Nankana East and Builsa North Districts last year.

He said the project had also formed and trained thirty two Peer Educators known as “Child Protection Teams”, and linked them to the Department of Social Welfare and Community Development to report cases of child, early and forced marriages in their respective communities to the department to help deal with menace.

The project, he also noted, had built the capacity of the Chiefs in the region on how to prevent child, early forced marriages in their respective communities.

“RISE-Ghana and the Ghana Police in one particular instance, also managed to save one victim who said she gave her consent to sex. RISE-Ghana and the Police supported the victim and counseled her to get the needed medication from a health facility to avoid possible HIV infection and pregnancy. Teachers are also holding lessons on gender based violence and child, early and forced marriages using 6 murals placed in some of the schools as Teaching Aid”, the Executive Director revealed.

Following a capacity building workshop for selected media actors in the Upper East Region on CEFM, the interest of Media practitioners in the region on early, child and forced marriages has also been whipped up, leading to most media outlets championing the campaign to end the phenomenon.

Recommendations and policy and institutional framework to combat CEFM

Whilst commending RISE-Ghana for complement government efforts in tackling the problem, there are still more left to be done to make a significant impact in addressing the canker. Enacting legislation alone is not enough. Governments must be committed to ensuring the enforcing of those laws. Even though Ghana, has had a Children’s Act since 1998 and the host of laws enumerated above, enforcement of the provisions contained therein has proved challenging and been disappointing, leading to the increasing incidence of Child , early and forced marriages instead of its decline.

Also, the reluctance of the community to expose those who engage in the practice and refusal of the police to investigate or prosecute because they consider it a family issue are the main reasons for the low enforcement rate. There is the urgent need for any government in power to demonstrate the political will to deal with the problem since Ghana is a signatory to many of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Children. Ghana as a nation stands to lose critically, if attention is not given to our girls to enable them develop to also contribute their quota to national development.

Additionally, in order to break cultural norms, traditional and religious leaders should be sensitized on the dangers of early marriage and create awareness about the laws and policies at the community level.

Besides, the Vocational and skills development programmes initiated by the government and other stakeholders should be expanded to give more girls skills to earn a living. The National Vocational and Technical Institute (NVTI), the Youth Enterprise Agency (YEA) and the Local Enterprises and Skills Development Programme (LESDEP) are some of the skills development programmes that have the potential to equip young girls with vocational skills and empower them economically and delay early marriage if properly operated.

There is also the need for Government to make resources available for women and girls to seek legal redress. The Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), the Domestic violence and Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service, the Family Tribunals of Department of Social Welfare, the Children’s Panels of the District Assemblies and NGOs should all be supported and resourced to assist girls in danger of early , child and forced marriages.

The government through the Gender Ministry should expand the livelihood Empowerment Programme against Poverty to more women and train them to undertake viable economic ventures to help address poverty so as to enable them cater for the needs of their daughters particularly in their education.

In conclusion, the combination of strategies highlighted above, when implemented properly can contribute significantly to the reduction early, child or forced marriages in Ghana particularly in the Upper East Region where the problem is becoming so scaring. Whilst also commending RISE –Ghana and the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives for the good initiative embarked upon by them in complementing the government’s efforts at addressing the issue, there is the need for other NGOs and all stakeholders including the Media to join the crusade in fighting against the menace.