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Women's Leadership and Ending Forced Marriages in Africa

Updated: Apr 22, 2022

Forced marriage does not just affect individuals. Its consequences are widespread, spanning local, national and international levels. Forced marriage is when either or both parties involved are compelled into a union without their full and voluntary consent. This is widely considered a harmful practice and a form of violence against women due to the unfair impact it has on their lives. A subset of forced marriage is child marriage, which represents a union in which one or both persons are younger than 18. Girls are the most affected, while boys are aided to pursue formal education and skills acquisition.

According to UNICEF, more than 650 million women around the world were married as children. Every year an estimated 12 million girls get married before their 18th birthday, amounting to about 28 girls every minute. The most affected number of girls are located in the least developed countries, particularly in Africa. These girls account for 40 per cent of girls married before 18, and 12 per cent of girls married before age 15 (UNICEF). It has also been suggested that if current practices persists, the number of child brides may multiply to about 20.8 million girls by 2050 in West and central Africa alone (UNICEF 2018).

The principle causes of forced and child marriage are interconnected, reflecting a range of cultural, social, political and economic issues. Poverty and economic imbalance have led many families to sell their girl child into marriages in a bid to escape hunger and hardship; the bride price is usually used to meet outstanding family needs. Similarly, cultural practices in some developing countries place women and girls at a disadvantaged position, where they are trained on domestic activities and then given out in marriage at a very young age to uphold their cultural heritage. Socially, some families prefer to give out their young underaged girls in marriage rather than risk cases of unwanted pregnancies. To them, forced and child marriage is a strategy to maintain moral standards.

As a consequence, young girls and women are negatively impacted socially, politically, economically and psychologically. This is evidenced in health-related complications from pregnancies in under-aged girls, inability to earn a decent income due to lack of education, rape cases that result in traumatic emotional experiences, low chances of contributing meaningfully to the society, and limited opportunities to participate in politics and take up leadership roles.

However, women leaders are starting to shine a light for women everywhere. Women have been active participants in championing feminist movements, COVID-19 intervention initiatives, global climate action, and movements against racism (Muteme, 2006). In Africa, the action of women leaders shows great promise for the community, nation and international development. This inspires and empowers increased hope for a better future for all.

History was made in 2006 when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia's former President and Nobel prize winner, became the first female head of state in Africa and the first black woman head of state. This awakened women's participation in political leadership in Africa. In a statement about the successful involvement of African women leaders in handling the COVID-19 health crisis, she said that "Women leaders are better placed to draw informal networks to mobilise rapid response and community support." She added that "women are familiar with finding alternative resources and creating ingenious collaborations to solve problems" (Alice Ngoyen, 2020). Scaling women's participation in leadership positions ensures that women's voices are heard at the most significant levels of decision making and governance.

Just 14 countries in the world have 50 percent or more women in their cabinet (Ngoyen, 2020). Rwanda is one of them, with women accounting for 53.6 percent of the country's national cabinet. The highest number of women in parliament across the world can be found in Rwanda, with their parliament comprised of 61.3 per cent women. Other countries in Africa with high percentages of women in parliament are South Africa, Namibia, Senegal and Mozambique. Countries that rank at the bottom for the percentage of women in leadership are Nigeria, Gambia and Benin. (Alice Ngoyen, 2020). The low level of political participation by women may be attributed to lack of education, the stereotypical belief that men are better leaders, gender bias political structures, reduced support for female leaders, and reduced allocation of political slots of female candidates.

According to the United Nations, despite the limitations posed by forced marriage, an increasing number of women are changing the narrative. Successful women leaders have attributed their leadership success to access to education and work opportunities, strategic mentoring by both men and women, support from family and the public, and successful lobbying by gender equality activists. Unfortunately forced marriage deprives young girls in Africa the access to these opportunities.

Having fewer women in leadership appears to support longstanding norms and stereotypes that women are not meant for leadership, just for basic home duties. However, women in leadership in the various spheres of life today have demonstrated that women can be impactful and productive leaders.

To reduce the cases of forced marriage in Africa, women-led transformative leadership is

required. Women leaders are in the best position to address issues facing women and girls. They are in the best position to drive advocacy and policies against forced marriage and inspire young girls and their parents to choose formal education. Women leaders can also provide mentorship for young girls, mobilise community women leaders against forced marriage, and develop innovative strategies to influence strict cultural practices that fuel forced marriage.

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals call for global action to end human rights violations by 2030, female leaders are instrumental, especially considering their first-hand experiences of gender-based discrimination. They are well-positioned to motivate the communities, young girls, parents, and influence other policy makers to end forced marriage. Education – both formal and informal – for the girl child must be encouraged. Women interested in leadership must also be encouraged. Harmful cultural practices need to be reviewed by communities so they understand the disadvantages, paving the way for communities to support girls and women to live up to their potential.




Amusile Olayemi is an early career researcher with a keen interest in SDG 3 (Good health and well-being) and SDG 5 (Gender equality). As a pharmacist, she has led several health-related advocacy campaigns on sexual and reproductive health rights and tobacco harm reduction through media platforms. She has also co-authored four research publications.

She holds membership in professional organisations such as the Commonwealth Youth and Gender Equality Network (CYGEN) and the International Society for Substance Use Professionals (ISSUP). She believes everyone has a part to play in building an equal and healthy world. She plans to do so through writing and advocacy.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Commonwealth Society.

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