In East Africa, a movement to end child marriage is on the rise

Delegates at the East Africa Conference on Child Marriage | Photo credit: FORWARD UK / Children's Dignity Forum

This summer, I took part in a gathering of civil society actors committed to ending child marriage in East Africa, a region where the practice is rampant.

I was struck by the diversity of perspectives at the conference – from young women living in rural Tanzania to high-level government representatives, but also civil society organisations (including quite a few Girls Not Brides members I had the pleasure of meeting again), United Nations officials and traditional chiefs from across East Africa and the rest of the continent.

Together we explored the context of child marriage in East Africa and shared lessons from our respective approaches to addressing the practice: what is and isn’t working in our efforts to end child marriage?

There were also some interesting capacity-building activities for participants, with practical workshops on how to engage parliamentarians on child marriage, using data, developing programmes that focus on girls, and much more.

Why ending child marriage should be a priority on East Africa’s development agenda

While there is no data that measures child marriage in East Africa as a whole, we do know that the region is home to countries with high rates of child marriage. In South Sudan, 52 percent of girls are married before age 18. In Eritrea, 47 percent of girls are subjected to child marriage, as are 45 percent of girls in Somalia. At least one in three girls is married as a child in Uganda and Tanzania.

We also know that in some regions within countries, the prevalence of child marriage is much higher than the national average: with 80 percent of girls marrying before 18, the rate of child marriage in the Amhara region of Ethiopia is almost double the national rate of 41 percent.

With 80% of girls marrying before 18, the rate of child marriage in the Amhara region of Ethiopia is almost double the national rate of 41%.

As a consequence, millions of girls across East Africa suffer the negative effects of child marriage: early and dangerous pregnancies, violence and abuse within in marriage, an end to their education. Some of the girls present at the conference shared what life has been like for them as a child bride. These were stories of pain and suffering, but also of resilience.

Joining forces to end child marriage: the importance of collaboration

The “East Africa Regional Conference on Child Marriage” took place on 12 and 13 June 2013 in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and was organised by Girls Not Brides members Children’s Dignity Forum and FORWARD UK.

I found myself, as so often since working with Girls Not Brides, inspired by the commitment of those who work to curb child marriage. Through panel discussions and workshops, participants shared the innovative approaches that they have designed to address child marriage in their country and provided suggestions for how others could adapt these ideas according to the context in which they work and the actors they want to convince.

I was particularly struck by the Tanzanian Media Women Association’s tips for engaging the media – both to encourage them to report on child marriage and to enable them to do so accurately and constructively:

  • Empower journalists with information on child marriage, such as its prevalence, causes and impact
  • Run workshops for journalists that train them on how to report on the issue in a constructive way
  • Partner with the media by making them allies in campaigns and other interventions

Recognising that civil society organisations alone cannot end child marriage, we debated the specific roles of other actors, too – including United Nations agencies, donors and governments. We heard from Professor Nkandu Luo, Zambia’s Minister of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs, who initiated a government-led campaign to end child marriage in her country. 

The only way to accelerate progress is for all those addressing child marriage to work in partnership.

Professor Luo said that “tackling child marriage is an obligation of governments”. By partnering with traditional chiefs across Zambia, the Minister has lived up to this statement and has found an effective way to convey the message to millions of villagers that child marriage has devastating consequences for girls, their family and their wider community.

Conference participants agreed that ending child marriage in East Africa is an urgent task, and that the only way to accelerate progress is for all those addressing child marriage to work in partnership. A key area of focus at the conference was to discuss ways to build strong partnerships that can place child marriage on the development agenda in East Africa.

Call for action to end child marriage in Africa

At the close of the conference, participants together drafted a ‘Call for Action to end Child Marriage in Africa’ that was later submitted to the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the African Union body in charge or monitoring African countries’ progress on protecting children’s rights. The Call for Action encouraged the committee to develop a general comment to provide guidance to governments on how to accelerate efforts to end child marriage.

The two days of conference reminded us how empowering it is to share experiences and to develop common messages and responses to the challenges we share. We left the conference with the conviction that, by building on the innovations of the civil society groups and by reinforcing political commitments from governments and other actors, East Africa can play an important role in leading African and international efforts to end child marriage.

Download the full conference report: East Africa Child Marriage Conference Report 2013