Education. Freedom. Choice. Independence. As citizens of the US, these are privileges that are given to us at birth. But what if you were born without these rights? Unfortunately, in the developing, third-world countries of Africa, this misfortune is a reality. The victims are millions of young girls, who are stripped of their freedoms due to the significant, widely-practiced act of child marriage.

Out of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage in the world, 17 of them are African countries. For instance, the percentage of girls married before 18 is 76 percent in Niger, 70 percent in the Central African Republic and Chad, and in Malawi, 50 percent, which is one for every two girls. Even tragically, if no significant changes are implemented, the number of child brides is expected to increase by more than double to 310 million by 2050.

One of the greatest factors behind the practice of child marriage is poverty. In this case, families are so impoverished that feeding another mouth at the dinner table is almost impossible. Most of the time it is the parents who make the decision to sacrifice a daughter for the sake of the rest of the family. However, sometimes, it is the girls themselves who bring the idea upon her parents in search of an escape from her unhappy life. (Chamberlain). According to the ICRW, “Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to marry before 18 than girls in higher income households. More than half of the girls in Bangladesh, Mali, Mozambique, and Niger are married before age 18. In these same countries, more than 75 percent of people live on less than $2 a day."

But why are only girls the ones being forced into marriages as children? Why are the boys freed from these circumstances? In the patriarchal societies of Africa, the education of boys is valued more significantly than those of girls. As expressed by Mary K. of South Sudan, “My father refused me to go to school. He said it is a waste of money to educate a girl. He said marriage will bring me respect in the community. Girls are instead seen as trading tools, and sometimes, they are traded at the same price as animals. In some cases, they are even used as exchanges for animals and objects with the traditional practice of dowries in marriage. Additionally, religious beliefs, such as the doctrines of the Apostolic faith which state that girls must marry when they are between 12 and 16, further contribute to the continuation of child marriage in Africa.

Due to early marriage and maternal age, many young girls suffer from tremendous health and social risks. Pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death for adolescent girls. Additionally, they are forced to halt or even discontinue their education. As a result, girls receive fewer opportunities and a lowered ability to make their own choices and be independent. Child marriage also exposes many young girls to domestic violence, marital rape, and emotional abuse. In fact, girls who marry young are significantly more likely to experience spousal abuse than women who marry after 25. Chanika B. from Malawi expresses the abuse she faced in her marriage, “My husband beat me at least twice a week and he used to force me to have sex with him. Also, I was not allowed to go out of the home”.

The issue of child marriage has been tackled by many African leaders. In fact, at the 28th African Union Summit, leaders vowed to hold an AU campaign to end child marriage. Steps have already been enacted included implementing laws that set the minimum marriage age at 18 and putting in place comprehensive and well-financed national plans of action. Tackling child marriage will, as a result, significantly advance women’s rights and empowerment in health, education, work, freedom from violence, participation in public life, and many other aspects.

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