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Never a better time to address child marriage in Africa than now

Suria, 12, attends the Adolescent Girls Empowerment Programme, led by Population Council, in Zambia | Photo credit: Jessica Lea, Department for International Development

For the first time since its creation, the AU picked 2015 to be the “year of women’s empowerment and development towards Africa’s agenda 2063”, a theme that will shape its discussions for the next few months.

This is big. Many of us who have been working for years to advance women’s rights understand that Africa’s development cannot happen without women. Yet their critical role had not been placed at the heart of the African Union’s agenda – until now.

It is an opportunity to reflect on the barriers that have held women and the continent back. Child marriage is one of them. Statistics show that 40% of girls across Africa are married before their 18th birthday, with detrimental consequences for their education, health and economic prospects – and that of their families, communities and countries too.

The problem is not going away either. According to UNICEF projections, the number of child brides in the region is expected to double by 2050. Luckily, there has never been a better time to address child marriage in Africa.

More African leaders are recognising that child marriage disempowers millions of girls and women and is holding back the region’s development. Their growing commitments to address the practice provide opportunities for civil society to hold governments accountable and ensure they do more to enable girls to thrive.

Capitalising on the AU Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa

One example is the growing support from high-level leaders to the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage. At the 24th AU Summit, the President and First Lady of Chad brought together Heads of States and Government and African First Ladies, along with government officials, UN representatives and civil society, in support of the Campaign and other AU efforts to end child marriage.

They made ambitious commitments including to “develop, elaborate, and implement national strategies and action plans to end child marriage” and to launch the AU campaign in their own countries.

High-level support can bring greater visibility to the issue and it also creates the potential for a “domino effect”: as African leaders take notice of what neighbouring countries are doing to address child marriage, they may follow suit. That’s why it is encouraging to see countries like Burkina Faso, Niger, Ethiopia or Chad launching the AU campaign to end child marriage.

But it is not enough. We need these new champions to lead by example and take concrete measures to address child marriage and support married girls.

Powerful African advocates draw attention to child marriage

Another exciting development is the African Union’s decision to create two positions exclusively dedicated to child marriage: the Goodwill Ambassador for the Campaign to End Child Marriage, and the AU Special Rapporteur on Child Marriage. This decision shows how important addressing child marriage is to the future of the African continent.

As a member of the African Committee of Expert on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which governments report to, Fatima Delladj-Sebaa, the Special Rapporteur, will be in a position to highlight child marriage as one of the major issues facing African children today. Meanwhile, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, the Goodwill Ambassador, lends her face and voice to the campaign, advocating for national action plans to end child marriage across Africa. In addition, AU Special Rapporteur on Women’s Rights Soyata Maiga plans to focus on child marriage this year.

There have never been so many mandate-holders dedicated to child marriage. That’s why it is crucial that they work hand in hand with civil society. Girls Not Brides co-organised their first strategic discussions with civil society and will continue to play the role of connector to ensure the AU’s and civil society’s efforts complement one another.

Looking forward, Girls Not Brides members and civil society more broadly can inform the work of the Rapporteurs and Goodwill Ambassador with first-hand knowledge of child marriage in their countries and of what it will take to accelerate change. They can also help carry out the Rapporteurs’ recommendations to governments and monitor their implementation.

Do you work on child marriage in Africa? Do you want to find out more how to engage? Get in touch with the Girls Not Brides Africa team:

Civil society’s role in keeping child marriage high on the agenda

This growing regional momentum offers an unprecedented opportunity for us – civil society – to drive child marriage to the top of the national and regional agenda across Africa, and hold governments to account for their commitments.

We can seize the opportunity offered by country launches of the AU Campaign to boost the visibility of child marriage in national and pan-African media, bring the campaign to the grassroots and frame it as part of broader efforts needed to address child marriage – as Girls Not Brides members in Zimbabwe are doing ahead of the campaign launch in June.

We can also encourage governments across Africa to become champions against child marriage. And Girls Not Brides members are doing just that. For example, the Girls Not Brides national partnership in Mozambique is a key partner of the government in the development of the country’s first-ever National Strategy for Combatting Child, Early and Forced Marriage. In Zambia, Girls Not Brides members and other civil society organisations participate actively to the country’s campaign on child marriage.

There has never been a more exciting time to be working to end child marriage in Africa than now.

As governments increasingly commit to taking action, civil society will be the glue that holds this movement together, bridging the gap with the grassroots, informing efforts, and holding governments to account.

There is no road map for civil society at this stage. At Girls Not Brides, we believe it is up to us to make the most of the regional and national opportunities and turn the current momentum into an African movement to end child marriage, one that is inclusive, collaborative and solutions-driven.

Together, let’s make child marriage history!