As African leaders gathered this week in Washington, D.C., for the White House’s first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, IWHC and the Girls Not Brides USA coalition held a panel discussion on the widespread problem of child marriage and called on governments to work together to end the practice.
Shannon Kowalski, IWHC Director of Advocacy and Policy, opened the discussion by highlighting why ending child marriage should be a priority for the United States and African countries. Kowalski noted that one girl is married every three seconds; this violates her fundamental right to choose if, when, and whom she marries, often curtails her access to education and vital health services, and perpetuates a cycle of poverty. Kowalski drove home that international leaders do not have a moment to lose.
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, Goodwill Ambassador for the African Union’s Campaign to End Child Marriage and General Secretary of the World YWCA, addressed the event with video remarks, calling on the African leaders gathered for the White House summit to invest in girls’ health, education, and empowerment to end child marriage.
Dorothy Aken’Ova, executive director of the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (INCRESE), an IWHC partner in northern Nigeria, talked about the realities of life for girls at risk of child marriage and the work INCRESE is doing to support them and avoid the practice. Her organization’s one-year program looks at the issue holistically by educating them about women’s rights under international agreements and local laws, sexuality issues, gender equality, and leadership training so they have the power to use their voices to avoid child marriage as well as advocate on their own behalf and for all their rights.
Oyindamola Oluwaseun Fagbenle, a lawyer and women’s rights advocate from Nigeria, noted that many Nigerians don’t even know child marriage is a crime under local and international laws, and that greater investment in education is critical to keeping girls in school and out of marriages. She also highlighted that families often marry off their daughters because they can’t afford the books and other costs required for them to attend school. “We can never overemphasize the investment in education. It can never be too much,” Fagbenle said.
During a question-and-answer session, one audience member asked what the panelists would say to their respective heads of state who are attending the summit. Aken’Ova expressed frustration that President Goodluck Jonathan hasn’t done enough to rescue the 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. She later noted that Nigeria’s recently passed anti-LGBTI law, is, like child marriage, a fundamental violation of human rights. She passionately argued that by violating the human rights of LGBTI people and condoning acts of violence, the government is “equally guilty just like Boko Haram. […] We must have zero tolerance to violence.”
Yesterday’s event was part of Girls Not Brides USA’s #Lead4Girls campaign, an effort to press the U.S. government to create a strategy to end child marriage worldwide. Mandated by the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, this strategy should direct foreign assistance to programs in countries where child marriage is prevalent; the top 20 countries with the highest prevalence include 15 African countries.
The theme of this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is “Investing in the Next Generation.” It’s time for the U.S. and African leaders to acknowledge that real economic, political, and social progress cannot be made without the participation of half the population and without concerted investment in adolescent girls. As Ambassador Gumbonzvanda said in her remarks, “Put girls at the center. It is an investment of a lifetime for us to be able to end child marriage.”