By Simona Sikimic, Save the Children
Every single day 20,000 girls are being married illegally across the world. In more extreme cases, girls as young as 10, 11 and 12 are being handed over to often older men without their consent. The shock they feel is hard to imagine and the girls are sometimes completely unaware of what is about to happen to them.
After they are married, they can fall into an all too familiar rhythm of abuse, exploitation and violence.
Separated from their friends and families, and forced to give up school, far too many lose what little security they had. They are often pressured to have one child after another, while being forced to look after their husbands and households.
The girls and women I have met repeatedly told me that their days can start at 5am and end past 11pm. They say that even when they fall pregnant and risk an array of complications because their bodies have not formed properly, or have not had access to the services they need, their husbands might not come home until late at night.
For many, divorce is difficult and opposing a marriage can leave you ostracised from your family and community.
In a safe house, far away from the place she grew up, 23-year-old Hawa (not her real name) recently recounted her harrowing story. Forced to marry a much older man at just 13 years old, she soon gave birth to her first child. She eventually managed to get a divorce and flee a husband she despised, leaving her child with her mother, but it was hard to find work. Eventually she ended up on the streets and was forced into street prostitution to support herself and the child she left behind. She is now pregnant again, carrying the baby of a man who paid her for sex.
The safehouse, run by Save the Children’s partner in Dakar, provides shelter and support to women and children who have been victims of violence and abuse. Here they are allowed to recover and given an opportunity to resume their education, as Hawa has done. She is taking the first step on a long road to rebuilding her life, but far too many other girls and women continue to be at risk.
Some 7.5 million girls are married illegally every year. West and Central Africa is home to six out of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage globally. In this region alone, 1.7 million child marriages are taking place below the national minimum age every year – one of the highest proportions globally.
If current trends go unchecked, by 2050 more than 50 percent of all child brides will be African.
The consequences of inaction cannot be overstated and yet they go unchecked.
The day a child is forced into marriage, their futures are stripped away from them. They are robbed of the right to go to school and the right to choose what happens to their bodies. Their health can suffer, as can that of their children.
For years, governments across the world have pledged reforms. New laws have been written, but their enforcement remains a challenge
Across West Africa, Save the Children and our partners have worked to promote education about the issue, fought to keep girls in school and engaged religious and traditional leaders.
In some villages where we work, imams now personally forbid the practice. In others, the village elders have formed committees to make sure girls are protected. Once a larger village enacts reforms, smaller ones tend to follow suit.
Keeping girls in education longer is also a key source of protection and helps give girls an opportunity to learn until they can make up their own minds about their futures. I recently met a girl aged just 12 in southern Senegal who successfully broke off her engagement by convinced her parents that it was bad for her health and that her prospects would be massively boosted by staying in school.
But genuine leadership must also come from the top. Places that have not enacted laws prohibiting child marriage must do so urgently. Those that have, must eradicate all loopholes. Even in rare instances when laws are robust on paper, more commitment must be put into making sure they are followed.
Later this month, a meeting is taking place in Senegal, which will bring together leaders in West and Central Africa and urge them to make pledges and take tangible steps to end the practice. Millions of girls, and future generations, are all depending on them not letting this opportunity slip away.
Simona Sikimic is Global Media Manager at Save the Children. She is currently deployed to Senegal
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