As the Region prepares to mark the Day of the African Child, the African Union has estimated that 58 million young women in developing countries have been married off before their 18th birthday. At the present trend, by 2020, 143 million girls would be married before age 18, an alarming average of 14.2 million girls every single year.

On June 16, 1976, nearly ten thousand black students from Soweto, South Africa, marched the streets to protest the poor quality of their education and demanding their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of innocent students were shot by security forces. And in the 2 weeks of protest that followed, dubbed the Soweto Uprising, more than a hundred students were killed and thousands were seriously injured. Since 1991, Day of the African Child has been celebrated on June 16 to commemorate those killed during the Soweto Uprising in South Africa, and to recognize the courage of the students who marched for their right to an education. Every year, a theme is identified and this year’s theme is “25 Years after the Adoption of the African Children’s Charter: Accelerating our Collective Efforts to End Child Marriage in Africa.” This is a special theme and the day will be commemorated by bringing together those affected by and working to end child marriage such as community leaders, traditional, religious leaders, girls affected by child marriage and key stakeholders.

The theme was inspired by a Day of General Discussion on child marriage during the 23rd Ordinary Session of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) in April 2014, which affirmed the recommendation of children to Member States to enhance their efforts to eliminate child marriage. Africa has the second highest rates of child marriage in the world after South Asia. West and Central Africa in particular follow closely on the heels of South Asia with two out of five (41%) girls marrying before 18 years.

Child marriage is a formal marriage or an informal union entered into by an individual before reaching the age of 18. The legally prescribed marriageable age in some jurisdictions is below 18 years, especially in the case of girls; and even when the age is set at 18 years, many jurisdictions permit earlier marriage with parental consent or in special circumstances, such as teenage pregnancy. In certain countries, even when the legal marriage age is 18, cultural traditions take priority over legislative law. Child marriage affects both boys and girls, though the overwhelming majority of those affected are girls, most of who are in poor socioeconomic situations. Child marriage is related to child betrothal and it includes civil cohabitation and court approved early marriages after teenage pregnancy.

Child marriage is a complex issue that is driven by a number of factors in different societies, and has devastating, long-term effects (health, education, psychological, and emotional) on the life and the future of girls. Child marriage is a human rights, gender, and health issue, as well as a cultural and developmental concern. The African Union considers this harmful practice of child marriage as a major hindrance to the development of the continent and this practice has to be faced if the continent is to be seen as progressive and ready to tackle the ever evolving dynamics of a changing world. The Commission launched a Campaign to End Child Marriage in May 2014 and has been focusing on a number of activities.

The Day of the African Child is also an opportunity to raise awareness of the ongoing need to improve the education of children living across Africa. It’s a need that still very much exists today. Education helps get families out of poverty but there are several reasons why many parents may not be able to take their children to school like affordable school fees, the distance to the nearest school, or early marriage which may keep girls from the classroom. These and many more barriers to education have an enormous impact on children, especially girls. Girls are active members of society, and they need the support of everybody to achieve their full potential.

Though progress has been made since the Soweto Uprising, many children are still missing from the classroom and much more work needs to be done to ensure all children are receiving a quality education, so that they can stay healthy, be more independent and become a force for social change.

Featured image photo credit: Arne Hoel / World Bank

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