Last week, while Americans came together to celebrate Thanksgiving, government officials across Africa convened for the first African Girls’ Summit. The Summit, cohosted by the government of Zambia and the African Union (AU), brought attention to the AU’s Campaign to End Child Marriage, which was launched earlier this year. On the continent with the highest rates of child marriage in the world—where 1 in 3 girls are married before the age of 18—the issue demands immediate action.
“The African states and African population should be faced with their responsibility [to end child marriage],” said Sike Bille, who founded IWHC partner organization Association to Combat Violence Against Women-Extreme North in Cameroon (ALVF-EN), and attended the Summit with her colleague, Aîssa Doumara. The solutions she and Aîssa offered, which were echoed by others, were clear: develop, fund, and implement national strategies that look at the full spectrum of adolescent girls’ needs. This means taking on pervasive gender inequality and social norms and practices that are sometimes seen as intractable.
The Summit drew high-level representatives from governments, UN agencies, and international and community-based organizations. Discussions centered on how to empower girls and prevent child marriage, and participants included representatives from local groups—like Sike and Aîssa—who have been working for years (sometimes decades) to end the practice in their own communities. They shared best practices and challenges, and in plenary sessions and side events alike, members of these local groups demanded that their experience and expertise be heard and put into practice.
The message to African governments was clear: by fulfilling girls’ human rights, offering them quality education that can lead to meaningful employment, enhancing their financial literacy, and providing sexual and reproductive health services, an end to child marriage is within reach. An enabling environment, where laws against marriage are enacted and enforced, where daughters are as valued as sons, and where females are seen as more then wives, mothers, or mothers-to-be, is critical to reaching this goal.
The Summit was heartening because no one shied away from tackling the difficult issues associated with child marriage or resisted calling on governments to do more. No one offered silver bullet solutions; no one was scared to say that this work will be challenging. And everyone came to the Summit with a passion to end child marriage here and now.
Zambian President Edgar Lungu may lead the way in these efforts. He opened the Summit by reiterating his government’s commitment to not just reduce child marriage, but to eliminate it outright. With such commitment from the highest level, the participation of over 10 ministers from across the government, and a national strategy to end child marriage, it seems like Zambia may be on its way to doing that. It could serve as an example to other countries.
After the Girl Summit in London in 2014, resolutions at the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, the inclusion of a target in the Sustainable Development Goals, and the recent Girl Summit DC, child marriage is more firmly on the international agenda than ever before. But now we must move out of the negotiating rooms and conference halls and into the communities. If we work together, we can end this practice across the globe. This year on Thanksgiving, I was thankful to be with people who will make this happen, people like Aîssa, who said: “We are writing history, and we are a part of that history to end early and forced marriage.”
Photo: UNFPA West & Central Africa