Using the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child to address child marriage

Girls Not Brides members brainstorming ahead of the London Girls' Summit in July 2014. Photo credit: Girls Not Brides.

Last month, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights of the Child held a forum to share experiences on how to implement the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. We sat down with Ruth Koshal, Senior Officer for Africa Engagement at Girls Not Brides, to talk about the African Charter and how it could help civil society organisations address child marriage.

What is the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child? What does it have to do with child marriage?  

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child is a regional human rights treaty adopted in 1990 and which came into force in 1999. It sets out rights and defines principles for the status of children.

The African Charter can be a powerful tool to hold governments accountable for ending child marriage. Indeed, it defines the rights and responsibilities of a child and mandates protection of the girl child from harmful cultural practices such as child marriage.

In article 21 (2) it explicitly states that “child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and that effective action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years.”

How does the African Charter and its reporting mechanism work?

The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) was established in 2001. States party to the charter submit reports to the committee, which documents information and assesses the situation of children. Member states must submit their first report on their implementation of the charter two years after ratification.  After that, periodic reports are submitted every three years.

The reporting process keeps governments accountable to the commitments they have made within the African Charter, and is a great opportunity to raise better measures to end child marriage. Members can see when their countries will submit a report on the committee website.

Photo Credit: Kameni Ngankam Yannick | ACERWC Secretariat

How can Girls Not Brides members use the African Charter to encourage countries to address child marriage?

First of all, Girls Not Brides members can encourage their governments to ratify the African Charter! Seven countries still have not ratified: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Somalia, Sao Tome and Principe, South Sudan and Tunisia.

Members can also influence their governments to remove their reservations to the African Charter. A reservation means that a country has asked to be excluded from the obligations of a particular article or provision. This is the case for Botswana, Egypt, Mauritania and Sudan, while Egypt and Sudan have specific reservations on article 21 (2) on child marriage. Promisingly, Egypt and Sudan recently pledged to consider withdrawing their reservations, a process which Girls Not Brides members in these countries could support and encourage!

Girls Not Brides members can ask their governments to report to the committee as well as implement and follow-up with the concluding observations. Lastly, Girls Not Brides members can work with other civil society organisations to prepare a joint complementary report and make sure to include information on child marriage.

Who can submit a communication or complaint to the ACERWC committee?

Any group, person, non-government organisation, member state or UN body can submit a communication or complaint about any violation of the African Charter. A communication is usually a last resort when all national processes have been exhausted.

Communications must be written in one of the official languages (usually English or French) of the committee, and must clearly state what violation has taken place. For the full list of requirements, download the revised communications guidelines.

How has the African Charter been successfully used to advocate for children’s rights?

One successful example comes from Tanzania, where a civil society coalition working on children’s rights prepared and submitted a complimentary report to the committee in October 2016. The CSOs developed key recommendations, mainly focused on policy reform around issues such as re-entry to schools for pregnant girls, and provision of water and sanitation in schools. Their recommendations were adopted.

Girls Not Brides member in Malawi also shared how they had used the African Charter to successfully amend the age of marriage in Malawi:

The African Charter can be a powerful tool to advocate for children’s rights across Africa, but there is a lot more that could be done to address child marriage!

The Committee’s next session will take place from 6-14 December in Khartoum, South Sudan. The Committee will consider the reports of Sierra Leone and Angola, as well as complementary reports from civil society from seven countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria and South Africa.

For more tips on how to use the African Charter to address child marriage, watch our webinar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SusCG8HdX24&t=1629s