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My vision: How young Africans can drive efforts to end child marriage

A child bride speaks to The Elders in Amhara, Ethiopia | Photo credit: Ashenafi Tibebe ¦ The Elders

Jude Thaddeus Njikem is a youth activist and the president of Organisation of African Youth Cameroon. In this blog, he explains why it is crucial for young people to become involved in efforts to end child marriage in Africa.

Child marriage holds women and girls back, keeping them from taking part in social, economic and political life. It holds Africa back too.

I have been working for the empowerment of African youth for over five years, motivating and inspiring young people to take an active role in social change.

When I first started, I would visit rural communities in remote regions of Cameroon and other parts of Africa, and I was routinely startled to see so few African women and girls involved in local, community-level development efforts.

“If young women do not go to school or are not involved in the development of their community, what, then, is their role?” I wondered. It did not take me long to realise that instead of attending school, girls were often forced into marriage at a very young age.

Young people have a critical role to play in ending child marriage

Child marriage is deeply embedded in our culture and traditions. In order to effect a lasting change for women and girls, we will need nothing less than a cultural and generational shift – and it is Africa’s youth who can make that happen.

In Cameroon, children and youth represent nearly half of the population with 43% of the country aged 15 or under. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, there are over 350 million people under the age of 18. Imagine what we could achieve if we mobilised them!

Take minimum age of marriage laws as an example. Most African countries have laws that make child marriage illegal, yet these laws are rarely enforced and the people who would benefit most from them are not aware of their existence.

Young people can address this gap in knowledge. In areas where the elderly can barely read, young members of the community can teach their parents, neighbours and village elders about anti-child marriage laws and why they exist – or why they should.

Having local youth lead this movement will also help foster community ownership of this legislation too.

Encouraging youth to spark community dialogue on child marriage

To be inspired to take action on child marriage, young people first need to be educated about the dangers of the practice.

After all, child marriage has devastating consequences. Child brides usually drop out of school, denying them the chance to gain the skills and knowledge to help lift them and their family out of poverty. They are also vulnerable to death in childbirth – did you know that girls who give birth before the age of 15 are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s?

At school, youth-led group discussions on child marriage can enable girls and boys to discuss why child marriage happens and what the consequences are, and to make their own recommendations to end the practice.

They can then take that discussion outside of the classroom and start a wider dialogue with their peers and family about what it means to marry as a child. Child brides are often married to much older men, which makes it hard for them to assert their wishes and leaves them particularly vulnerable to domestic violence.

Fundamentally, we need to create spaces where young people’s views and ideas on child marriage are heard and valued.

It means developing safe spaces for girls to voice their concerns about early marriage and pregnancy and to express their aspirations. It means encouraging child brides to tell their stories to ensure that their experiences are taken into account in community decisions on child marriage.

Importantly too, we should refrain from talking about child marriage in isolation from other issues.

Drawing on the expertise of young advocates who are active in other fields, such as HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health or education, is beneficial due to the many links those issues have with child marriage.

Replicating successful youth outreach programmes across Africa

There are numerous examples of projects that have successfully involved young people and encouraged them to challenge the perpetuation of harmful traditional practices in their communities.

A good example is Berhane Hewan, a programme conducted in Ethiopia, which works to support girls’ education and delay child marriage. It provides girls with a safe space, as well as female mentors, to socialise and learn how to become confident young women. They receive support to stay in school or start informal educational courses to gain livelihood skills.

So far, the programme has generated a community-wide conversation on child marriage, reaching over 11,000 girls from 2004 to 2009. A similar project, called “Ishraq”, runs in Egypt, helping teenage girls re-enrol in school and delay their marriage.

Youth-led programmes to end child marriage exist. We now need the political will and the resources to replicate them on a larger scale and finally make this generational and cultural shift a reality.