Africa tack­les child mar­riage, but it’s in­grained in some so­ci­eties

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OP/ED -

DAKAR, Sene­gal — Sit­ting on the floor and dressed in black, the 15-year-old held her baby as pan­icked tears welled in her eyes. Her hus­band, two decades her se­nior, could kill her if he found out she was telling her story, she said.

She was mar­ried at age 13 in the West African na­tion of Guinea be­cause her par­ents feared she could harm her mar­riage prospects by hav­ing pre­mar­i­tal sex.

“I was given to a man that I didn’t choose be­fore my body was even ready to have sex,” she said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Child mar­riage re­mains deeply en­trenched in West and Cen­tral Africa, home to six of the 10 coun­tries with the high­est rates in the world.

Rights groups and po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious lead­ers from across the re­gion gath­ered in Sene­gal in late Oc­to­ber to seek ways to curb the prac­tice.

Out­spo­ken sur­vivors of child mar­riage urged them on.

More than half of girls in Guinea are mar­ried be­fore age 18. While the coun­try re­cently banned mar­riage for those un­der that age, ob­servers say the prac­tice re­mains wide­spread. Some girls en­ter ar­ranged mar­riages dur­ing times of in­se­cu­rity or when fam­i­lies are un­der eco­nomic strain.

“This is a com­plex is­sue driven by poverty, cul­tural norms and fam­i­lies try­ing to do the best for their chil­dren,” said Save the Chil­dren In­ter­na­tional CEO Helle Thorn­ingSch­midt. “But un­til we break the cy­cle where the only way a girl can give her fam­ily honor is to marry and have chil­dren, then we will not change this.”

Child mar­riage af­fects nearly 15 mil­lion girls around the globe. The rate is as high as 76 per­cent in Niger; in Chad and Cen­tral African Repub­lic, it is 68 per­cent. Mali and Burk­ina Faso have rates above 50 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to data from Save the Chil­dren and Girls Not Brides.

Ex­perts say ed­u­ca­tion for girls is key to pro­vid­ing them with op­por­tu­ni­ties be­yond mar­riage, and to im­prov­ing re­gional pros­per­ity.

Some young women may em­brace early mar­riages, see­ing them as pro­tec­tion from in­se­cu­rity in con­flict-rid­den areas, said Zuwaira Bello of the ad­vo­cacy group Girl Child Con­cerns.

The group op­er­ates in north­ern Nige­ria, where the Boko Haram ex­trem­ist in­sur­gency is known for kid­nap­ping young women and forc­ing them into mar­riages.

In­volv­ing for­mer child brides in com­mu­nity ac­tivism will help dis­cour­age child mar­riages that seek pro­tec­tion from un­rest, Bello said.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Child mar­riage af­fects nearly 15 mil­lion girls around the world, and West and Cen­tral Africa have among the high­est rates.

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