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African ministers set ambitious target: eliminate child marriage by 2020

Ministers of Education and Health from 21 countries* in Eastern and Southern Africa have sent a strong signal that they are determined to end child marriage across the region.

At a meeting on 7 December 2013 in Cape Town, South Africa, the ministers committed to ensuring quality, comprehensive sexuality education and youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services for young people across Eastern and Southern Africa. To achieve this, they set themselves 9 targets including the elimination of child marriage by 2020.

The commitment is more than a list of good intentions. It outlines a set of targets against which progress to ensure sexual and reproductive health education and services for young people across Eastern and Southern Africa can be measured. The ministers agreed to review and report on this Commitment annually at regional summits, including Southern African Development Community and East African Community summits.

Ministers of education and health recognise cross-cutting nature of child marriage

Importantly, the commitment recognises the cross-cutting nature of child marriage and other issues affecting girls, and therefore the need for Ministries of Health and Education to work together.

Child brides usually drop out of school, cutting short their education. They typically face pressure to prove their fertility too, leaving them vulnerable to early and frequent pregnancies, often with dangers consequences. Girls who give birth before 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.

Education is one of the most powerful tools to delay the age at which girls marry. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries on average four years later. Improving access for girls to quality schooling, including secondary education, will be a crucial part of efforts to end child marriage.

Similarly, health ministries can do much to support child brides and unmarried adolescent girls including providing them with youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health information and services to empower them with knowledge about their bodies, their rights and to help them to decide when, whether and how many children to have.

Ministers commit to reviewing age of consent laws; opportunity to revisit minimum age of marriage laws

The ministers recognised the State’s responsibility to combat all forms of discrimination and rights violations, including child marriage. As part of this, they committed to “Urgently review – and where necessary amend – existing laws and policies on age of consent, child protection and teacher codes of conduct […].”

Such a commitment is a significant part of efforts to address child marriage. It is important that the minimum age of marriage is higher than the minimum age of sexual consent because the stigma that surrounds sexual relations in many areas means that sexual relations are usually a prerequisite for marriage.

As the Africa Child Policy Forum has found, a discrepancy exists between the minimum age of marriage and age of consent in many African countries. In Malawi, for example, the Penal Code prohibits sex with a child aged below 16, while under the Constitution a child aged 15 is allowed to marry with the consent of a parent or guardian. The ministers’ commitment to review age of consent laws provides and opportunity to revisit those related to minimum age of marriage.

Child marriage in Eastern and Southern Africa

Eastern and Southern Africa is home to five of the 20 countries with high rates of child marriage in the world. According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2013 report, 56% of girls in Mozambique are married before 18, which means that Mozambique has the sixth highest rate of child marriage in the world. In Malawi, one in every two girls is married as a child.

*The countries that affirmed the commitment included:
Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Africa, South Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Download the ministerial commitment document.