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Child brides: from myth to crime

In some African countries, virginity bestows girls and teenagers with a magical, mystical quality. Popular ancient traditions reinforce these ideas, such as that there were emperors who used to bathe in the blood of young maidens because it brought them vitality and youthfulness.

 

  Julio Morejón

 

Such beliefs are distorted to this day when, through an apparent exorcism, it was absurdly interpreted that a sexual relationship between a sick adult and a girl or teenager, could cure Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which crosses the line of abuse and ignorance into criminality.

There are also more objective conclusions to consider in this regard; when references to child marriage are connected with war zones, where this forced subjugation of girls is a direct weapon and their parents may be the ones who marry them off, thinking that they will be better protected against rape and physical abuse.

“Conflict often leads to a break down or weakening of protection services meant to prevent child marriage. This in turn exposes girls to greater risk of harm and violence”, Amira Elfadil, African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs, writes in an article.

The sub-Saharan region has the highest figures of child marriage on a global level every year, with more than three million girls, one in three, married before the age of 18. According to the World Bank (WB), these unions entail financial losses in their respective countries of between 60,000 and 120,000 million dollars.

A report by the financial organisation released at the end of 2018 explains that “child marriage has other costs, more serious than economic ones, such as high rates of fertility and population growth, which can drive a “population bomb”, whose unprecedented explosion can create inequalities, such as dangerous food insufficiency and intensifying poverty.

“A child bride is more likely to drop out of school, suffer serious complications during pregnancy and childbirth and have a high risk of experiencing domestic violence. Her children are also more likely to be of low weight and have a higher rate of child mortality under the age of five”, says a version of the WB document distributed to the press.

Of the 20 countries where most child marriages take place, 18 are in Africa: Nigeria, Central African Republic, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, South Sudan and Guinea are seven of those at the top of the list with more than half of girls married before the age of 18.

Variations on a theme

The prevalence of child marriage in western and central Africa is uneven, although statistical investigations indicate that primarily they are around the age of 15 years, which for some specialists means a slight distancing from previous patterns.

Therefore, the marital union mainly of under-age girls, is highly criticised today by prestigious, well-known African public figures, as stated by the Mozambican social activist, Graca Machel, and South African religious figure, Desmond Tutu, in an article published by newspaper Washington Post.

For both of them, “Child marriage happens because adults believe they have the right to impose marriage upon a child.

This denies children, particularly girls, their dignity and the opportunity to make choices that are central to their lives, such as when and whom to marry or when to have children”.

They also add that, “Choices define us and allow us to realise our potential. Child marriage robs girls of this chance”. The willingness to pass legislation against premature marriage, a measure that the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) and the opposition parties are in agreement on, is part of the reaction by African leadership to condemn the issue loudly and clearly and the decision to take action without delay.

What is certain is that, in Africa, there are still insufficient programmes to protect childhood, which includes education, health and nutrition, and sexual and reproductive health services, all connected to safety and survival.

In areas of famine, childhood malnutrition is a manifestation that always tends to lead to high levels of mortality and prevents the slowdown of curable diseases that, every year, wreak havoc on the smallest ones, who therefore become the most deprived section of the population. (PL)

(Translated by Donna Davison – Email: donna_davison@hotmail.com) – Photos: Pixabay

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