The very idea of child marriage seems foreign and abhorrent to those of us living in developed countries, but that’s not true for citizens of many nations. In countries like Gambia, around 41% of girls wed before the age of 18, and not much has been done to discourage or prevent this ages-old practice that severely limits girls’ potential and opportunities—until now. After the First Lady of Gambia declared war on child marriage, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh declared a ban on child marriage July 6, with plans to enforce this through imprisonment of offending parents for up to 21 years as well as a minimum time of 20 years for the groom of the child bride. In a nation where one in five girls have undergone childbirth by 19, this is progressive change.
The Commissioner for Social Affairs of the African Union Commission believes that “child marriage is sitting at the top of the table when you’re talking about harmful traditional practices,” as he stated in Kigali at a summit. According to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), at present, it is estimated that 15 million girls are married young each year, mostly in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa. The most obvious impact of child marriage is on the girls themselves, whose intrinsic human rights are violated by this cultural practice. They’re expected to participate in sexual activity at a premature age, which leads to numerous health and reproductive complications: death during childbirth is not uncommon due the high risks of giving birth young, and chronic medical problems can also result from this. Girls also face broken marriages, an increased risk of HIV infection due to the age gap between the bride and groom, and a higher likelihood of marrying into a physically abusive relationship.
Looking at the bigger picture, child marriage also has an often-overlooked impact on a country’s performance as a whole: it forces girls to take on the role of adults, meaning that young brides drop out of school at high rates. It’s speculated that this leads to a poor economy, seeing as girls that are educated are able to help support their families when they grow older, resulting in lower rates of poverty and setting the stage for economic growth. In fact, dropping out of school due to marriage allows the poverty cycle to persist: girls that wed young are typically those who grew up in poor families in nations where three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 per day. When girls wed young, their families are faced with one less mouth to feed, and are able to better sustain themselves, and dowries for the bride also provide incentive for financially struggling families to give their daughters away as soon as possible. As a result, the child bride is worse off than she otherwise would have been, and her children have a greater chance of being subjected to the same practice. Unless the practice of child marriage comes to a halt, it’s impossible for these countries to improve their standard of living, GDP and literacy rates.
It’s this writer’s hope that the ban in Gambia will become an ideal that spreads into the areas where child marriage is practiced; however, as Isatang Jeng of Girls Agenda said, “I don’t think locking parents up is the answer… it could lead to a major backlash and sabotage the ban.” She’s right: for a practice so entrenched in a nation’s culture, the threat of imprisonment is secondary to the appeal of the practice for some families. Child marriage and the poverty cycle go hand in hand, and for families that have no hope other than to give one of their daughters away in marriage, I’m not certain imprisonment is the best way to go regarding enforcement of the ban. It’s certainly a step, but there are other, more effective ways to phase out child marriage in developing countries where it still persists, and one of the best ideas for this is to work with the communities in which it is prevalent, as Jeng suggested. Another possibility is to work with the religious leaders encouraging the practice, because it seems highly improbable that the incentive of imprisonment alone will cause the kind of social revolution that is necessary for child marriage to become a thing of the past.
At least, unlike many nations where nothing has been done towards solving the issue, Gambia has stepped up and decided to take action to abolish child marriage, a decision I can completely get behind. That alone is impressive. Now, for the sakes of the child brides, let’s hope the ban lasts and Gambia has more up its sleeve to encourage and enforce the end of child marriage, so that it can serve as a model for other countries and improve the lives of its citizens.
This article was written by Jade Carraway, a writer for dusk magazine.