‘Child brides’ suf­fer as African Union seeks to end the cus­tom

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Lu­cia Fe­lix, a 15-year-old Mozam­bi­can girl, dreams of re­turn­ing to her vil­lage school but in­stead she must pre­pare for moth­er­hood af­ter she was cho­sen for an ar­ranged mar­riage and be­came preg­nant. She is one of the mil­lions of “child brides” across Africa who are mar­ried be­fore their 18th birth­day, with many al­ready wed when they are younger than 15. This week, the African Union will meet in Zam­bia to hold its first con­fer­ence on “End­ing Child Mar­riage in Africa”-a small step in ef­forts to pro­tect girls like Lu­cia. “One day, a young man ar­rived here to choose a wife from sev­eral girls and he chose me. Then I got preg­nant,” she told AFP, speak­ing un­der a mango tree in the court­yard of her fam­ily’s home in the south­ern vil­lage of Jang­amo.

Lu­cia, who is eight months preg­nant, had just re­turned from the doc­tor af­ter con­tract­ing malaria and she com­plained of pains in her belly. “I’m afraid be­cause I’m still a child and I fear I won’t be able to take care of my baby,” she said. “I want to go back to school and to study to be­come a teacher.” The African Union says about 14 mil­lion un­der-age girls are mar­ried on the con­ti­nent each year-al­most all of them forced by their par­ents, of­ten against laws that are rarely en­forced.

‘A rights vi­o­la­tion’

“Child mar­riage is a hu­man rights vi­o­la­tion that robs girls of their rights to health, to live in se­cu­rity, and to choose if, when and whom to marry,” the AU said ahead of the meet­ing to­day and to­mor­row in Lusaka. “It is a harm­ful prac­tice which se­verely af­fects the rights of a child.” The meet­ing will gather rep­re­sen­ta­tives from mem­ber states, first ladies, UN of­fi­cials and civil so­ci­ety groups to dis­cuss how to change long-es­tab­lished cul­tural norms and how to even­tu­ally end child mar­riage al­to­gether. Lu­cia’s mother, Zaida Zun­guze, ad­mits she first sup­ported her daugh­ter’s mar­riage to her 20-year-old suitor, but said that she wanted Lu­cia to wait un­til she turned 18.

“She’s still a child, she knows noth­ing. I want to con­tinue teach­ing her how to take care of her house,” Zaida said, sit­ting on a mat next to Lu­cia. “I’m wor­ried be­cause the man said he would pro­vide for the baby, and now he doesn’t say any­thing.” The le­gal age of mar­riage in Mozam­bique is 18, or 16 with parental con­sent, but nearly half the girls are mar­ried in tra­di­tional cer­e­monies be­fore they turn 18.

Ac­cord­ing to the last na­tional cen­sus con­ducted in 2011, about 14 per­cent are mar­ried be­fore the age of 15. “The con­cept of the child here is dif­fer­ent. As soon as they show the first signs of pu­berty, they are al­ready con­sid­ered an adult,” Pas­coa Fer­rao, di­rec­tor of the so­cial ac­tion de­part­ment in the south­ern city of In­ham­bane said. “(Child mar­riage) has of­ten to do with eco­nomic cir­cum­stances. If a girl is mar­ried off, then there’s one less mouth to feed. “It leads to in­creased child mor­tal­ity be­cause teen moms don’t know how to take care prop­erly of their chil­dren.”

‘Girls not brides’

Ac­cord­ing to the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion Girls Not Brides, girls who marry be­fore 18 are also more vul­ner­a­ble to HIV, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and mal­nu­tri­tion. “I lost my job as a maid be­cause I was preg­nant. The bosses don’t like it,” said Ci­dalia Daniel, 17, who has a 10-month-old son. She now lives with her par­ents af­ter her hus­band, 21, fled abroad when she got preg­nant. “He would beat me up if I said some­thing he didn’t like. He got an­gry. I didn’t like his be­hav­ior,” she said.

To try to help dis­cour­age par­ents from ar­rang­ing the mar­riages, Mozam­bique in 2007 cre­ated “com­mu­nity com­mit­tees for child pro­tec­tion”. “These com­mit­tees are re­spon­si­ble for iden­ti­fy­ing cases, and con­tact­ing so­cial work­ers so that they can in­ter­vene,” said Ana Machaieie, from UNICEF, which trains and equips the project. “We must make par­ents take re­spon­si­bil­ity, be­cause too of­ten they im­pose mar­riage on their own chil­dren, in­stead of pro­tect­ing them.” Un­der-age mar­riage rates in Africa are high­est in Niger, Chad and the Cen­tral African Repub­lic. The in­au­gu­ral AU “child bride” meet­ing in Lusaka will fo­cus on shar­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of cam­paigns to re­duce child mar­riage and on se­cur­ing higher govern­ment fund­ing.

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