Child marriage in:

Sub-Saharan Africa

UNICEF 2017 % Married by 15
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 18

* Child marriage prevalence is the percentage of women 20-24 years old who were married or in union before they were 18 years old (UNICEF State of the World’s Children, 2017)

Every week, the Lusaka Girls Secondary School welcomes Continuity-Zambia, a civil society organisation that runs educational clubs for girls from grade 8-12. Photo credit: Girls Not Brides.

UNICEF 2017 % Married by 15
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 18

* Child marriage prevalence is the percentage of women 20-24 years old who were married or in union before they were 18 years old (UNICEF State of the World’s Children, 2017)

Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children. 17% of them, or 125 million, live in Africa.

Approximately 39% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before the age of 18. All African countries are faced with the challenge of child marriage, whether they experience high child marriage prevalence, such as Niger (76%) or lower rates like Algeria (3%). Child marriage is widespread in West and Central Africa (42%) as well as Eastern and Southern Africa (36%).


The causes of child marriage are common across Africa. Parents may marry off their daughter due to poverty or out of fear for their safety. Tradition and the stigma of straying from tradition perpetuate child marriage in many communities. Crucially, gender inequality and the low value placed on girls underlie the practice.

If we don’t act now, the number of girls married as children will double by 2050 and Africa will become the region with the highest number of child brides in the world (UNICEF, 2014).

Progress and prospects

The prevalence of child marriage has been slowly declining in Africa, but remains higher than the global average. The fastest progress in reducing child marriage in Africa has been in North Africa. The level of child marriage among the poorest families in Africa has remained unchanged since 1990.

The child population of Africa is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years, putting millions more girls at risk of child marriage. However, if progress is accelerated, the prevalence of child marriage in Africa could be halved by 2050.

But even doubling the rate of reduction will not be enough to reduce the number of child brides in Africa. By 2050, the continent will have the largest number and global share of child brides in the world. The time to act is now.

Conventions related to child marriage

Several African human rights instruments condemn child marriage and/or establish 18 as the minimum age of marriage:

Regional initiatives to address child marriage

Commitments and initiatives to address child marriage have considerably grown over the last few years.

African Union campaign to end child marriage in Africa

In May 2014, the African Union launched the first-ever campaign to end child marriage in Africa. The campaign focuses on accelerating change across the continent by encouraging AU member states to develop strategies to raise awareness of and address the harmful impact of child marriage.

Originally planned over two years, the campaign has now been extended to run until at least 2017. As of December 2017, 22 countries have launched the campaign.

Campaign launches so far:

  1. Ethiopia, 25 November 2014
  2. Niger, 10 December 2014
  3. Burkina Faso, Dori, 3 March 2015
  4. Chad, 14 March 2015
  5. The Democratic Republic of Congo, 15 May 2015
  6. Madagascar, 2 June 2015
  7. Uganda, 16 June 2015
  8. Zimbabwe, 31 July 2015
  9. Mali, 11 October 2015
  10. Sudan, 10 December 2015
  11. Ghana, 10 February 2015
  12. Eritrea, 11 June 2016
  13. The Gambia, Banjul, 16 June 2016
  14. Senegal, 21 June 2016
  15. Sierra Leone, 17 August 2016
  16. Cameroon, 18 November 2016
  17. Nigeria, 29 November 2016
  18. Liberia, 15 December 2016
  19. Kenya, 8 March 2017
  20. Benin, 16 June 2017
  21. Guinea, 16 June 2017
  22. Cote d’Ivoire, 5 December 2017

Special Rapporteurs and Goodwill Ambassadors on child marriage

The appointment by the African Union of a Special Rapporteur on Child Marriage and a Goodwill Ambassador for the AU Campaign to End Child Marriage is also a promising sign of African commitment.

African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC)

In April 2014, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) adopted a declaration urging AU member states to set the minimum age for marriage at 18 years for both girls and boys without exception and to develop and implement holistic strategies to end child marriage.

The ACERWC and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights is preparing a General Comment on child marriage which expounds on Article 21, 2 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

Joint General Recommendation/General Comment on harmful practices

In November 2014, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) issued the Joint General Recommendation No. 31/General Comment No. 18 on harmful practices. This marks the first time that two expert United Nations committees have joined forces to set out a common interpretation of the obligations on states to end harmful practices.

Both the CEDAW and the CRC contain provisions obliging states to end harmful practices, including female genital mutilation, forced marriage, so-called honour crimes, widowhood practices, virginity testing and neglect of girls.

African Common Position on Ending Child Marriage

In June 2015, AU Heads of States adopted a Common Position on Child Marriage which urges governments to establish comprehensive action plans to end child marriage, including setting and enforcing laws which set the minimum age of marriage at 18.

African Girls’ Summit (November 2015)

On 26-27 November 2015, the African Union and the Government of Zambia held the first African Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage. The summit brought together high-level personalities from AU Member States, African First Ladies, UN agencies, women and girls and civil society organisations to share experiences and best practices, and secure and/or renew commitments to end child marriage, in particular from governments. Read the outcome declaration.

Agenda 2063

The need to end child marriage is embedded in Agenda 2063, the African Union’s 50-year vision for the development of the continent, which recognises child marriage as a major barrier to regional prosperity.

Article 51 states that “All harmful social practices (especially female genital mutilation and child marriage) will be ended and barriers to quality health and education for women and girls eliminated.”

ECOWAS Strategic Framework for Strengthening National Child Protection Systems

Adopted on 5 October 2017, the ECOWAS Strategic Framework commits 15 Member States to take concrete measures to protect children from violence, abuse and exploitation.

As programmes for children are strengthened at national and community level, Ministerial commitments made during the meeting will be submitted for approval at the next ECOWAS Heads of State meeting in December 2017.

The strategic framework targets five priority areas: sexual, physical and emotional violence, including female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C); child marriage; child labour; civil registration and vital statistics; and children on the move. It has a strong focus on ending child marriage, and uses an indicator from target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, percentage of women between 20-24 who were married before 15 and 18 years old.

SADC Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage and Protecting Children Already in Marriage

The SADC Model Law, adopted by the SADC Parliamentary Forum in June 2016, provides a benchmark for Member States and supports them in developing, reviewing and harmonising the laws related to child marriage.

This model legislation builds on best practices and serves as a yardstick and advocacy tool for legislators. It sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 years old for children with no exception, in line with international and continental human rights standards.