Updated: Mar 15
Article by: Christine Ghati Alfons
I am the founder of Safe Engage Foundation, an organisation working with youths as the change agents to stir up dialogues in the community with an aim of achieving a community free from violence against women and children.
I am a Kenyan activist working towards the abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting and Child marriages in my community and beyond.
I am also a co-facilitator with Orchid Project, specialising in UNICEF’s six elements for abandonment of FGM/C.
From 2019-2020 I served in the Executive committee of CYGEN as the Child Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM) lead and I am a Queen’s Young Leader (2015).
Facebook: Christine Alfons
This article gives overview of child and forced marriages, factors contributing to and effects of Child marriages, and strategies that have been employed across the Commonwealth member states to curb the practice. It also highlights two stories of women who are survivors of child, early, and forced marriages.
Marriage is often regarded as a moment of celebration; a milestone in an adult’s life. Unfortunately, the practice of child, early and forced marriage gives no such cause for celebration. All too often, forcing a married partner upon a child means that their childhood is cut short – and their fundamental rights are compromised.
What are the differences between Child, Early and Forced marriage?
Early marriage is where one or both parties have attained the consenting age and are married, but may not have been ready and were pressured into marriage by circumstance. Some experts see a very slim difference between child marriage and early marriage.
Forced Marriage is where one or both people do not or cannot consent to the marriage, and pressure or abuse is used to force them into marriage. A marriage can also become a forced marriage even if both parties enter with full consent, if one or both are later forced to stay in the marriage against their will. (https://cpdonline.co.uk/knowledge-base/safeguarding/what-is-a-forced-marriage/)
All these are harmful practices that violate the rights of women and girls.
Statistics across the globe and in the Commonwealth.
Globally, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18 each year. This equates to 23 girls every minute. (https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/about-child-marriage/)
In the Commonwealth, about 8.8 million girls are married before the age of 18. Every year, this means that about 17 girls get married every minute. (https://thecommonwealth.org/media/news/working-together-end-child-marriage)
This paper calls for urgent action to help accelerate abandonment of the practice.
If action is not taken urgently, more than 15 million girls will be married before the age of 18 by 2030.
These practices are fuelled by the following factors:
1. Gender inequality: Girls are very vulnerable to Child Marriage compared to boys as they are less valued in many communities across the Commonwealth.
2. Poverty: The longer girls stay in school the more they stay away from child marriages. Whenever girls lack school fees and stay at home, they become more vulnerable to child marriages. In addition, their parents can create wealth by marrying them off in exchange for a dowry.
3. Social norms: This is about values and how people express them in everyday life. Many communities across the Commonwealth do not see child marriage as something that needs to be challenged and changed. It is another social norm, like Female Genital Mutilation, which is also highly valued across in many cultures and can be part of preparing girls for marriage.
Child Early and Forced Marriage has devastating consequences all over the world, ranging from health to financial/ economic to literacy levels to psychological. It violates some of the rights of women and girls.
Some of the rights violated by child, early and forced marriage are:
✔ Right to health: Child marriage exposes a girl to very high-risk pregnancy as her body is not yet ready for gestation and childbirth, which may cause fistula or even death during birth.
✔ Right to education: Girls married as children effectively lose their childhood. They are forced to drop out of school to get married and look after their families.
✔ Freedom of choice (choice of their partners and when to marry): Girls are not given the opportunity to reach the age of consent to choose their own partner.
✔ Right to be protected from harmful practices: Girls subjected to child marriage are not protected from the harm that it comes with it.
Emerging aspects in Child Marriage
Eloping marriage is where two minors – a boy or a girl – decide to marry. In this case their parents are held liable by the law. Another incidence of elopement is when a girl who is a minor decides to get married to a man who is of consenting age. This mostly happens with girls who are victims of teen pregnancies, or the social norms within their local communities make them believe that it is okay to get married before the consenting age.
Strategies that have been employed to end child marriages across the Commonwealth
1. Community sensitisation: Community outreach, to help communities understand the need to abandon and end child marriage, has been carried out by civil society organisations who are working at the grassroots to help change attitudes. This has been adopted by many organisations, including Amref Health Africa, World Vision and Safe Engage Foundation.
2. Legal approaches: Different countries take different legal approaches to child marriage. For example, countries like Kenya and Uganda have criminalised the practice by setting a minimum legal age for marriage. In most cases laws alone do not work to stop the practice. Policies and programmes are needed to ensure social change happens.
3. Education scholarship opportunities: Some governments and CSOs offer scholarships to girls who are vulnerable to dropping out of school. These opportunities extend their time in school, enabling them to complete their education and attain the age of consent.
4. Women economic empowerment programmes: An economically empowered woman can make informed decisions about her own health and that of her children and can stand up for her daughters, so they are not married early.
These approaches are not standalone; they complement each other to ensure the practice ends. The strategies need to be employed while ensuring the community members are at the centre to help ensure ownership and change social norms.
In Kenya, most of these strategies have been employed. The national prevalence is at 23 per cent, but this varies by region. In Northern Kenya, the rate is at 56 per cent, the Coastal region is at 41 per cent and in the Western region the rate is at 32 per cent. (https://atlas.girlsnotbrides.org/map/kenya)
Some of the programmes that are proving to be efficient are engaging girls and boys in schools to understand why they should say no to child, early and forced marriages. They are also engaging survivors of child, early and forced marriages so that they can protect their own daughters – and influence friends and relatives not to be victims of the practice. Through this, many girls who were married before the age of 18 have been able to overcome some challenges and are progressing well to ensure their families are not falling victims of the practice.
Below are two case studies of women from the Western Part of Kenya
Case study 1: Gati
“My name is Gati (not her real name). I grew up in a family that did not value education. I was forced by my father to drop from class 7 to get married, so I can give him dowry. I was married off at the age of 16 years. After I gave birth to three children, the man who married me sent me away, so that he could marry another woman. I went back to my parents with my children, and I stayed there for about three years. I did not have any income generating activity and I had to rely on my parents, who were farmers, for provision.
“After a while, the man who sent me away came asking for his dowry to be returned, but my parents did not have anything with them. I had only one option; getting another man who would marry me and get the dowry to return to the man who was demanding his dowry back. I finally found a suitor, this time he was my choice, I loved him, he accepted me and my three children.
“In my second marriage, life was still very hard, and we were struggling to make ends meet as I was only looking up to my husband to provide for everything, yet he was just a peasant farmer. We worked hard on the farm to ensure we had basic supplies.
“I later joined an economic empowerment session in my village, where I learnt about a sewing programme. I enrolled and now I can make dresses to sell and train other women and girls on tailoring skills.
“I urge parents not to force their daughters to get married; rather they need to help them complete school and learn skills that can help them earn income.”
Case study 2: Boke
“My name is Boke (not her real name), I am 19 years old and joined high school in January 2020. In March, the first COVID-19 case was reported in Kenya, and we closed school and went home. In April I went to visit my aunt. I stayed there for about two weeks then. That is where I met my boyfriend. I decided to get married; yes, I wanted to settle with him. My mum came looking for me to get back to school when schools reopened but I had already made a decision to settle with my husband. I refused and did not want to go back to school.
“My first year of marriage was not so easy, I had a miscarriage and lost my baby and so far life is proving to be so hard. I have enrolled for a craft course to help me earn income since it is not easy to wait on my husband to provide for everything.
Given a chance to encourage girls, I would ask them to hold on to education first and not to run for marriage. There is time for everything.”
For social change, the community members' attitudes and perspectives are very important to inform programmes, but ending child, early and Forced marriage can be accelerated if all stakeholders play their part effectively. This includes political good will, community readiness, sufficient funding to grassroot organisations, updated data across the Commonwealth countries, and proper monitoring frameworks.