Child marriages are intense in low and middle-income countries. Some of the highest rates are found in Sub-Saharan Africa. West Africa has one of the highest rates of early and forced marriage. UNICEF global database report (2017) reveals Niger has a prevalence rate of 76 per cent followed by Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea with 67, 55, 52 and 43 per cent respectively. These West African countries are also among the countries in the world that account for the highest Total Fertility Rates (TFRs) on the continent. With an internationally recognised goal of ending child marriage by 2030 and the African Union Campaign to end child marriage, most civil society organisations (CSOs) working on child marriage issues in West Africa are intensifying their efforts in the fight against child marriage.
The Role of CSOs in curbing child marriage in West Africa
Given the surge of the child marriage phenomenon, the role of CSOs is crucial in the fight. CSOs are closer to the masses and play a critical role in aligning their efforts with international and national action plans to end child marriage. CSOs should continue to collaborate, share and learn best practices from technical, financial and development partners, religious and traditional leaders, community based organisations, academic and research institutions to avoid duplication of efforts. For CSOs’ role to be effective, all proposed interventions must be well coordinated, comprehensive (covering a range of psychosocial and economic drivers) and adequately resourced with a focus on empowering young girls and reintegrating child marriage victims/ survivors into society. CSOs can take on a number of actions to scale up their contributions to end the child marriage menace in the region.
Awareness raising: CSOs should continually and consciously educate, sensitize and create public awareness on the effects and risk relating to child marriage. CSOs should raise public awareness and campaigns to end child marriage using the media/ social media, outreaches at mosques, churches and communities. Public sensitisation should take place in both the urban and rural areas. Furthermore, CSOs should educate citizens on the health effects of early and forced marriage. Young girls who have been victims can share their experiences with other young girls, families and people in the communities. Public awareness creation, campaigns, education and sensitisation should focus on educating the citizens to change their perceptions, behaviours and attitudes towards girls and women in the society. Moreover, during these sensitisation activities, laws regarding child rights issues and their sexuality should be articulated. People should be schooled on the legal age of marriage and the fact that marrying young girls before the legal age is a criminal offence punishable by law.
Intensify advocacy efforts: CSOs should intensify advocating for policy reforms and comprehensive legislation that promote child rights and protection. Activists can advocate for the clarification of ambiguous legislations between religious, customary and civil marriages. They should demand the official registration of all marriages and advocate for law enforcements in communities.
In addition, CSOs should campaign for the same minimum legal age of marriage for both female and male. Parental consent and other exceptions needed as a requirement for marriages below the legal age must be annulled. At both national and local levels, CSOs can organise forums with all stakeholders supportive of ending child marriage and raise awareness among them on the state of early and forced marriage in the country and the need to address it by embarking on policy reforms that seek to empower girls.
Provision of appropriate support: CSOs can provide service support interventions for adolescent girls, survivors, child wives and the family. Poverty is one underlying cause of child marriage globally. CSOs’ supportive interventions should seek to empower girls so they become economically equipped to be independent. Basic and secondary education should be accessible to young girls while child marriage victims/ survivors should be reintegrated into the educational system or in vocational training institutes. The creation of adolescent friendly health services and youth counselling centres in local communities where the youth can get information about their reproductive health issues and support will be invaluable in bridging the information gap.
Engage relevant stakeholders: CSOs must constantly engage religious and traditional leaders, men and boys. The role of men is vital in our quest to end child marriage as they play key roles in the process; either as the men getting married to girls or being the men collecting the bride price (when it is being paid). In engaging these stakeholders, CSOs should seek to challenge the rationale for child marriage at the community level through education and open discussions. CSOs’ consultations and engagements with these stakeholders should lead to the creation of watchdog committees within communities that take preventive measure against child marriage practices. These committees could be made responsible for reporting child marriage cases in the communities to appropriate agencies in the communities.
In addition, traditional and religious leaders should be involved in measures to curb this practice. They have enormous potential to conscientise communities towards ending the practice. In Niger, Plan International (2012) reports working with Sultans in the Dossa area to eradicate child marriages. These men are highly revered and deal directly with communities and parents of child brides.
Knowledge Sharing: CSOs should always share knowledge on best approaches and practices that have worked in eliminating or reducing the practice of child marriage with other CSOs in the region. Although, there are differences in context, basic information and activities can be adopted in child marriage programmes/projects. Dynamics in child marriages overtime should be documented by CSOs since academics and researchers can develop interest in assessing these new paradigm shifts. This can lead to a pool of knowledge and resources that can inform a lasting solution to the menace.
The perpetuation of child marriage affects everyone. It is expedient that all stakeholders redouble their efforts in the fight against child marriage. Eliminating child marriage by 2030 must be a priority for all; hence it should be a responsibility of everyone.