In East Africa, a quiet but powerful change is rumbling in the distance.
For decades, the movement to end child marriage has been gradually growing, and has produced great successes across the region, including decreases in the practice in several countries.
But change is not happening fast enough. We need to pick up the pace.
In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, a huge number of girls are still subject to child marriage every year, and 23%, 31% and 34% in each country respectively have been married off before they reach 18.
These figures represent a fall in prevalence, however, unless efforts are significantly increased, we will miss the target envisioned in the Sustainable Development Goals to end child marriage globally by 2030.
To make matters worse, UNFPA predicted in 2020 that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, increases in gender-based violence, school closures and economic contraction will put even more girls at risk of child marriage; a further 13 million worldwide by 2030.
A seismic shift is needed for girls who are at risk today.
The root of the problem
Child marriage is both underpinned, and perpetuated by, gender inequality and harmful social norms that value girls less than boys.
Girls Not Brides’ members see first-hand how this impacts girls, including the effects of the pandemic which has led to increasing numbers of girls undergoing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), which can be a precursor to child marriage in some East African communities.
To address such deeply embedded issues which are fuelled by poverty and inequality, we need to work collaboratively with all stakeholders, from the grassroots to the treetops.
This approach will allow us to build on concerted efforts to ensure that girls’ childhoods are no longer stopped short by marriage.
East African collective action on child marriage
In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Girls Not Brides’ members are embarking on a collaborative new project that will accelerate momentum to end child marriage across three neighbouring East African countries.
Taking an “ecosystem approach” across the region, our partners will work with young people, media, politicians, community leaders, schools, and families in their local and national contexts, and will come together to share challenges and successes. This approach aims to bring together all the relevant actors working to end child marriage, so we are aligned with each other, and each actor intensifies and accelerates their efforts towards a joint goal.
“I’m hopeful and excited,” said Natalie Robi Tingo, Executive Director of our partner, Msichana Empowerment Kuria, in southern Kenya. “This programme recognises that no one person has the deciding say on whether a girl is married as a child.”
She added, “We will be working at community level, with village elders, through intergenerational dialogue, with the county government, parents, and girls themselves.”
This holistic approach aims to create an enabling environment in which a girl is free to choose her own future, championed by everyone who has an impact on her life; from the household level, to the national government.
Catalysing movements across borders
While Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda each have different contexts that present varying challenges to the movement to end child marriage, collaboration across these East African countries hope to overcome some of these hurdles.
“Some communities affected by child marriage and FGM/C straddle the border between Kenya and Tanzania,” we learned from Koshuma Mtengeti, Executive Director of our Tanzanian partner, Children’s Dignity Forum.
“With different laws in place in the different countries, some families cross the border to evade authorities and marry off their daughter, or for her to be cut.”
Koshuma continued, “Proper coordination across the three countries will be key to our learning and success. As this project has already been implemented in Uganda, we will be able to learn from our peers and catalyse change across borders.”
Young people leading transformative change
Working at the local, national and regional levels, the project will strengthen movements addressing child marriage in Kenya and Tanzania for long-term, sustainable change, with a strong focus on empowering young people to lead.
“There is a strong correlation between the project we carried out last year, and this new phase that is expanding into Kenya and Tanzania,” said Peace Namayanja, Project Coordinator of the Accelerating Progress to End Child Marriage in Uganda program and Programs Officer at Joy for Children Uganda.
“We have major learnings that will be cascaded to our neighbouring countries through workshops and peer-to-peer learning. Together we will build a strong movement of advocates for ending child marriage across the region.”
Young people are an influential group in the movement and were a vital component of success in the Ugandan implementation of the project.
Peace continued, “I believe we’ll have a strong youth movement of East African activists who are willing to stand up for policy change, shifting harmful social norms like child marriage and FGM/C, and to speak up providing evidence-based solutions.”
The East African project will harness the power of collaboration to drive forward the movement to end child marriage. Building on a strong foundation, our partners will work through the media, with young people, decision-makers and at community level to shift gender and social norms so girls can be free from child marriage.
This project was made possible thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery (PPL).
In the time it has taken to read this article 55 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds