A third of African countries have discriminatory minimum age for marriage or allow child marriage – ACPF

Left: Mr. Théophane Nikyèma, ACPF’s Executive Director. Center: Dr. Assefa Bequele, founder of ACPF, and ACPF’s Distinguished Fellow. Right: H.E. Joaquim Chissano. | Photo credit: African Child Policy Forum

In our latest report released on 18 November 2013– The African Report on Child Wellbeing 2013: Towards Greater Accountability to Africa’s Children – we ranked Africa’s most and least child-friendly governments based on a range of factors, indicators and data, including child marriage.

How child-friendly is Africa? Key findings of African Report on Child Wellbeing

The Child-Friendliness Index 2013,which also compares progress since we undertook our first ranking in 2008, reveals that those scoring highest as the “most child-friendly” are Mauritius, South Africa, Tunisia, Egypt, Cape Verde, Rwanda, Lesotho, Algeria, Swaziland and Morocco.

Those scoring lowest and categorised as the “least child-friendly” are Chad, Eritrea, Sao Tome and Principe, Zimbabwe, Comoros, Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Mauritania, most of them under-investing in education and health and failing to put in place adequate legal protection to children.

In general, we found that more and more governments are allocating a larger share of their budgets to sectors that have a direct impact on children including health and education, and most governments are taking steps to enhance the legal protection of children from abuse and exploitation.

A child-friendly country is one that protects girls and boys from child marriage

The legal protection provided for by governments is one of the compelling components of our ranking how “child-friendly” a government is. This includes the legal framework in place to protect children from harmful practices, such as child marriage, because as we know Africa alone is home to 14 out of 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage.

Africa alone is home to 14 out of 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage

Of 54 African countries reviewed in this particular case, 33 have set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both girls and boys, while a further four have set it above the age of 18 for both (these are Algeria, Lesotho, Libya and Rwanda). This sets a strong legal framework to help protect children from child marriage and keep children, particularly girls, in school. In the remainder of African countries, the minimum age is either discriminatory or below 18.

In terms of addressing the challenges of child marriage, Kenya is a good case in point with one of the strongest legal and policy frameworks in the region, having ratified most of the core instruments related to child rights and having made good progress in harmonising child-related laws with international standards – it was one of the first countries in Africa to introduce a consolidated children’s statute.

Child marriage is punishable by imprisonment and fines and children subjected to marriage below the specified minimum age are entitled to measures of special protection.

Too many African countries fail to offer protection from child marriage

But despite such positive examples, sadly we have found that far too many countries have failed to align their family laws with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC).

Not only do 17 African countries either have a discriminatory minimum age (meaning that girls and boys are allowed to marry at different ages), or allow marriage below 18 years of age, many have a discrepancy between the minimum age of marriage and minimum age of sexual consent (it is important that the age of marriage is higher as consummation is a prerequisite for a valid marriage).

For example, in Sudan where the minimum age of sexual consent for a girl is 18, children as young as 10 are legally allowed to marry, and the law specifically protects the husband from penal sanctions for sex within marriage to a girl under 18.

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“Without the mechanisms in place to enforce the laws aimed at protecting children, many will continue to lose their childhoods to marriage”

The new report highlights three types of approaches that exist concerning child marriage in Africa: countries that criminalise the practice, countries that ban or invalidate marriages below the minimum age, and those that prescribe a minimum age of marriage without criminalising or banning the practice.

Without mechanisms to enforce laws aimed at protecting children, too many will continue to lose their childhoods to marriage

Even with legislation, child marriage continues to affect millions of girls every year because without the mechanisms in place to enforce the laws aimed at protecting children, many will continue to lose their childhoods to marriage.

To pave the way for Africa to become a continent fit for children, we urge governments to

  • Adopt and align national legislation with international standards and commitments;

  • Put in place mechanisms aimed at operationalising existing legislation relating to child marriage;

  • Introduce integrated programmes that take into account the drivers of child marriages such as social norms, value systems including religion, bride price and gender inequities and poverty.

This is integral if Africa is to be truly accountable for its children and their wellbeing.

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