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Why is girls’ education key to ending child marriage? – Day of the African Child 2014

On Monday 16 June, 2014, the African Union and its member states will mark the Day of the African Child under the theme “A child friendly, quality, free and compulsory education for all children in Africa.”

The theme speaks directly to our shared mission as members of Girls Not Brides because the practice of marrying children, especially girls, before the age of 18 curtails children’s right to education, puts their health at risk, and hampers national development efforts. More specifically, education is a critical strategy to end child marriage.

“Education is the foundation for Africa’s development”

Education is a basic right for all children as enshrined in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Education is the foundation for Africa’s development agenda. Education empowers children across the continent and helps them to achieve their maximum potential.

Research shows that the prevalence rate of child or forced marriage is highest among girls with little or no formal education, and among households with the lowest income levels. Conversely, we know that the longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to be married before 18 and to have children during her teenage years. Schools create protective environments against child marriage.

In Africa, 45 African countries have established laws that make education free and compulsory, while in four countries, education is free but not compulsory. Fourteen of the 45 countries that make education free and compulsory have also set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both boys and girls.

There is therefore a correlation between laws on compulsory education and child marriage. Enacting and enforcing laws that provide for free and compulsory education and ensuring that the age of secondary completion is in synergy with the minimum age of marriage is an important legal strategy in ensuring that children access education and thus delay marriage.

Policy makers and other stakeholders should however consider and effectively address the multiple barriers that children, particularly girls, face in accessing education including fees, geographic barriers, sexual harassment of girls, lack of access to safe and sanitary toilet facilities, lack of access to female hygiene products, overcrowding and lack of trained teachers, as well as corporal punishment in schools. 

Recent threats to education in Africa

In recent years, UNESCO has witnessed increasing cases of deliberate attacks against schools, teachers and students, especially against girls’ education, in countries across the world. In 2011, UNESCO documented the hidden crisis of education in times of conflicts, in its Education for All Global Monitoring Report, demonstrating that half of the world’s out-of-school children live in countries affected by conflicts. Furthermore, conflicts, such as in Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Mali, have “far-reaching and permanent negative effects on both access to school and progress through the education system”, according to the UNESCO.

The recent abduction of the 276 schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria is a very visible and alarming incident that risks reversing the achievements made in education against education. Additionally, there is a fear that the missing girls will be married off by their captors.

The African Union takes action on child marriage

Now is a crucial time for action to scale up education and reduce child marriage across Africa. The African Union has just launched the “Africa-wide Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa”, which addresses child marriage as a harmful practice that must be eliminated.

The campaign highlights the root causes of child marriage, such as poverty, gender discrimination, and gender-based violence as well as low rates of education. It reiterates that educating girls will contribute towards Africa’s socio-economic development, and a child’s education should not be interrupted at any time because of marriage. Laws need to be enforced against child marriage, including the enactment and enforcement of laws that raise the minimum age at marriage to 18.

The AU Campaign aims to end child marriage by:

  • Supporting legal and policy actions in the protection and promotion of human rights;
  • Mobilising continental awareness of the negative socio-economic impact of child marriage;
  • Building social movement and social mobilisation at the grassroots and national levels; and
  • Increasing the capacity of non-state actors to undertake evidence-based policy advocacy, including the role of youth leadership through new media technology, monitoring and evaluation, among others.

And, as a UN official noted, “Ending child marriage will require unambiguous political commitment, visionary leadership, and support for grassroots advocacy to address many of the cultural practices and behaviours that place young women and girls at increased multiple health risks, including HIV.”

Time to act & end child marriage!

To ensure that education is indeed an effective strategy to end child marriage in Africa, governments should:

  • Substantially increase resource allocation to education in order to secure and strengthen the necessary conditions for good quality education;
  • Develop and support long term strategies that lead to sufficient numbers of well trained and motivated teachers, including recruitment, pre- and in-service training, professional development, as well as regular and sufficient remuneration that includes incentives to work in the poorest and most remote areas;
  • Expand the institutional and educational resource framework to cover formal, informal, technical and vocational education programs;
  •  Promote children’s, parents’ and communities’ engagement in education governance;
  • Create safe schooling environments free from abuse and violence;
  • Expand access to secondary school and measures to facilitate improved secondary school completion rates for girls;
  • Facilitate  proper regulation of private and religious educational institutions to ensure that the quality of education and the rights and wellbeing of children is safeguarded in these institutions; and
  • Promote affirmative action by ensuring gender parity in schools, and creating enabling environments (including access to hygiene and appropriate sanitation) for girls.