On Tuesday, 11th October 2016, the world will be commemorating the International Day of the Girl Child. This comes a little over a year since the signing and adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at addressing urgent global challenges over the next 15 years.
As we commemorate this day, we should be considering how violence against the girl child affects their families, communities as well as the sustainable development of the country.
Yes! Empowering the girl child and eliminating all forms of violence against her will lead to greater development, especially in making progress towards attaining the SDGs. One form of violence mostly experienced by girls, and especially girls born into poverty, is Child Marriage.
In my work as a development officer campaigning against Child Marriage under UNICEF’s two-year End Child Marriage campaign, I have come across dozens of girls who were, have been or were going to be forced into child marriage. One of such girls is Kende Ayindana.
At 16 years old and a final year student in Junior High School in Tanga, a small community in the Upper East Region, Kende was married off to an older man from the city.
I was about to complete JHS when I was forced to get married and dropped out of school. I passed through series of abuse.
Now 18 years old, Kende has been neglected by the man she was married to, who has come back to Accra. Now, Kende has to cater for their child by herself.
But Kende’s story is an empowering one, she has since returned to school as her mother has offered her help and takes care of Kende’s baby so she can continue with her education. For many girls forced into child marriage, the future is bleak and their lives are ruined.
Defenders of child marriage
Perpetrators and defenders of child marriage have often justified their position with some reactions. They usually ask:
But what if the child feels she is grown enough and wants to marry?
Some of the children are bad, they get pregnant whiles under 18 and the men want to take responsibility and marry her, is that a bad thing?
I have met girls whose parents have been against them getting married and they have not heeded them, is that one too child marriage?
She stopped school herself and started living with the man, she doesn’t listen to anyone!
These are many of the questions, statements and defences I get from community members and friends whenever the topic of child marriage comes up.
My response is always the same. It is still a crime.
A child, according to the Children's Act, 1998 Act 560 (1998- section 1), is a person below the age of 18 years, as defined by the 1992 Constitution as well as the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The Children's Act, 1998 sets the minimum age for betrothal and marriage at 18 years stating that:
1. No person shall force a child –
a. to be betrothed;
b. to be the subject of a dowry transaction; or
c. to be married.
Act 560 also offers a penalty for the crime of child marriage, stating that “any person who contravenes a provision of this Sub-Part commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding ¢5 million or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding one year or to both.” The provisions of Section 14 of Act 560 makes it very clear that any formal or non-formal, customary or traditional marriage or union in which one or both partners is/are below 18 years old is referred to as child marriage and is punishable under the Ghanaian law.
Child Marriage and the SDGs
Although child marriage affects both boys and girls, girls are mostly victims and the most affected. Marrying girls off affects continuation of their education as they would have to leave school to assume their new roles as wives. Consequently, we will not be able to have gender parity in education nor will we achieve Goal 4: Inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. Child marriage ensures that more boys will continue to be in school, have an education, attain economic and employable skills whiles girls are restricted to roles at home and unpaid care work, which reduces their economic independence and traps women in the cycle of poverty. This will in turn affect the attainment of Goal 1: No Poverty, Goal 2: Zero Hunger as well as Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth.
Achieving Goal 5: Gender Equality will not be possible if we do not stop child marriage. Once the education of a girl is halted at an early stage, this translates into lack of knowledge and access to skills, which means limited or no opportunities in the job market. Thus women, who form the larger population of the world, will have no part or a very small role in economic growth. The growth of communities and countries will be skewed to males only, resulting in a slower pace of development.
The progress to No Poverty will not be achieved since majority of married girls, who have little or no education will find it difficult to live empowered, poverty-free lives. These women will become unproductive and rely on their husbands and governments to fend for their needs and those of their children, a situation that will have dire consequences on the development of communities and the country. Poverty eradication is possible when people have jobs that gives them income so they can cater for their families without over-relying on the government. Women must enjoy equal access to equal opportunities with men for employment.
The girl child is certainly not ready to be a mother as she is still a child. With her reproductive system still maturing, she is likely to be exposed to health risks during and after pregnancy. How then do we make progress on Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being if we are marrying them off at such early ages?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in young women aged 15–19. Young girls who marry later and delay pregnancy beyond their adolescence have more chances to stay healthier, to better their education and build a better life for themselves and their families.” The United Nations states that complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls aged 15-19 years in developing countries.
If Ghana and its citizens are keen on making progress towards the SDGs, then we must increase our efforts and effectively implement policies that prevent, and reduce child marriage cases as well as punish perpetrators.
This year’s theme for International Day of the Girl Child is, “Girls' Progress = Goals' Progress: What Counts for Girls”. Let’s make our efforts count.
Project Officer, End Child Marriage Campaign