There is not one corner of this continent that should not hear this message: end child marriage. This was a sentiment shared by more than 90 member organisations, associates and supporters of Girls Not Brides from 20 different African countries who came together in Johannesburg last week to discuss how to end child marriage across Sub-Saharan Africa, a region where 38% of girls marry before 18.
Participants ranged from grassroots groups to international NGOs, with diverse and complementary approaches to ending child marriage. Whether they work to ensure universal access to education, improve maternal and child health, defend women’s rights, or reduce poverty, each participating organisation shared a determination to see girls thrive.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of The Elders, spoke at the opening of the meeting of why he was so passionate about ending child marriage: “It is the same reason as when more than half of the population of South Africa was condemned to a life of deprivation. It is unconscionable that a child of God should be condemned to a life that is less than full just because she is a girl. We ought to do everything in our power to ensure girls can become all they can be.”
How can we turn pockets of change into sweeping change across the continent?
As in other parts of the world, there are areas where child marriage is declining in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the rate of change remains slow. Participants at the Girls Not Brides meeting therefore considered how we as civil society can turn these pockets of progress into sweeping change across the continent?
“Movement,” was the most popular word used by participants to describe their thoughts by the end of the meeting. We need to build a strong civil society movement across the continent to end child marriage because in doing so, felt participants, it becomes harder for governments to resist our calls for action. By the close of the meeting, many of the organisations present agreed to form national partnerships to end child marriage in their home country.
Building a movement against child marriage was considered important not only to build pressure on governments to act, but to enable organisations to learn from fellow organisations striving to make a difference in the lives of girls.
While 14 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in Sub-Saharan Africa, the region is also home to some of the most innovative work to address the practice. Participants at the meeting drew on their own experiences to discuss what really works when it comes to preventing child marriage and considered how these projects can be scaled up to make sure that millions more girls benefit.
Empowering and educating girls was seen as one of the most important steps. Amplifying the voices of child brides and those at risk of child marriage was considered vital, too: “there can be nothing for them without them,” said youth advocates who were present.
The need to work with public institutions such as the judiciary was seen as important to build their understanding of child marriage as a rights violation that we have a collective responsibility to address. Participants also felt strongly that civil society, pressure groups, media and other actors must work together to raise awareness of child marriage. In many countries, the general population is largely unaware that laws exist against child marriage or of the devastating impact the practice has on girls.
We have to sharpen our arguments: harmful practices can be overcome
Child marriage is such a deeply-rooted traditional practice that, as custodians of culture, traditional leaders were identified as key partners to encourage a change in attitudes. Many civil society groups find, however, that when they raise the issue of child marriage within communities they face resistance from those who don’t want to see their practices questioned.
“We need to sharpen our arguments a little,” said Graça Machel, international advocate for women’s and children’s rights and member of The Elders, as she reflected on this challenge. The values, beliefs and principles that lie at the heart of our cultures are not harmful. In fact, argued Mrs Machel, culture is the best of the values that we as human beings cherish. What we need to challenge are the traditions and practices that have developed over time that are harmful to girls and women and which do not represent our values.
“There is no culture that encourages a human being to diminish and to oppress, to discriminate against another human being. That is not culture. If it happens it is a tradition, a practice. I want us to distinguish between the two,” said Mrs Machel. “Harmful traditions can be overcome.”
Participants at the meeting returned to their home countries with a similar sense of determination: child marriage can be overcome. But to make that happen, we will need to work with one another, at different levels, in different regions, at different scales, each with the conviction that this social change can happen. By ending child marriage we will ensure that millions of girls across Africa are free to thrive and that the continent does too.