Early marriage and Girls education: A real struggle in Africa
Discussing women’s empowerment throughout the VOF training has given me a new appreciation for the United Nations Development Programme Administrator Helen Clark’s statement: “Development cannot be achieved if 50 percent of the population is excluded from the opportunities it brings.”
As we work on our projects to help build a better world for women, the reality on the ground shows that we need more than projects, actions and determination to save women through empowerment, thus, ensuring their participation in today’s development. We need solutions that work.
“You see, my dad is trying to make me feel that my fiancé is not a good man. He does not even know him, but he can tell he will not make me happy. All because I refused to marry that man he was giving me to,” said the young lady sitting beside me. We were all in a taxi driving toward Cocody, a commune of Abidjan, the commercial capital of Côte d'Ivoire. I couldn’t help but listen in on their conversation, in part to get my mind off of the current political turmoil in my country and the thousands currently fleeing violence in Abidjan to return to their villages and nearby countries.
“He may be angry with you for refusing his proposal, so be careful,” replied her friend, who also looked about 18-years-old.
“I know he is angry, especially because my sister has run away again.”
“Again!” I thought to myself. What led this girl to run away twice, I wondered.
“The girl is just 16, but this is her second wedding. [Our father] married her last year, but the day they took her to the husband’s house, she escaped and hid at my uncle’s place. After one week, he came to my father and told him he has found Ramy and beseeched my father to allow her to continue her education at least till she graduates from secondary school and brought her back home. My uncle likes education—when I reached the age to start school, he fought my father and took me by force to his house and sent me to school. But just last weekend, my father arranged another marriage for her without her notice. But Ramy is smart and intelligent, she ran away before they could send her to the husband. Just that this time my uncle has not seen her and my father is blaming me for that… He says I have taught my sisters rebellion against his will. That we don’t know what is good… I am so disturbed because he is planning to marry her to one of our cousins living in our house. And I can’t reach her.”
“Why is he doing that? What is he getting from his daughters entering into marriage without consent, knowing it will not work?” asked her friend.
“I don’t know sister,” she answered. “I bless God for my aunties being educated. If I was still living at home with him I would have been married by now. I am so grateful to my aunties to have brought me here to make sure I finish my education. You can’t imagine how lucky I am to be the only girl in my father’s family to attend university. You can’t imagine.”
While getting out of the taxi, I asked myself: On which planet or era are we living? This is my Africa, always doing wonders! My heart ached for that girl. Though I did not know her, I could not stop myself from repeating her last sentence, which was pounding in my head—“You can’t imagine how lucky I am”—as if she was talking to me.
I can imagine how lucky she is because in my mother’s family I am also the only female to attend and complete university. I try to figure how my life would have been if I had not had a chance to attend school or if I had been forced to enter into marriage without my consent. All I can see is that I am indeed lucky not being in that situation.
In Africa, many girls are compelled to leave school and enter into marriage. This situation compounds two major problems we are fighting to solve: illiteracy or under education and early marriage. While the second United Nations Millennium Development Goal aims to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education at all levels by 2015, some cultural practices make progress difficult.
In Cote d’Ivoire the balance sheet on girls’ education remains problematic both on access and completing schooling. According to a survey in 2006, almost 49 percent of girls living in Cote d’Ivoire do not attend school; rates in the northern parts of the country are as high as 78.3 percent. The numbers are also worrying for girls in primary school: Only 15 percent of girls actually complete their primary education.
Educating a girl is not a priority in many families and tribes where girls are raised to fulfil their husband’s needs. Add to that girls being taken out of school to enter into marriage and the result is a violation of these young girls’ right to education. These children are being deprived of their adolescence.
Percentage of 15-19 year-olds married
Sub-Saharan Africa boys / girls
Dem. Rep. of Congo 5 / 74
Niger 4 / 70
Congo 12 / 56
Uganda 11 / 50
Mali 5 / 50
Afghanistan 9 / 54
Bangladesh 5 / 51
Nepal 14 / 42
Iraq 15 / 28
Syria 4 / 25
Yemen 5 / 24
Latin America and Caribbean
Honduras 7 / 30
Cuba 7 / 29
Guatemala 8 / 24
Source: UN Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Marriage Patterns 2000
Girls worldwide remain vulnerable and are often subjected to various forms of victimisation. People often pin poverty as the primary culprit, but an elderly and wise woman I consulted gave me new insight into what has been passed on from generation to generation.
Girls, in ages past, were raised with the primary objective of making the husband happy. A valued woman was to be loving, caring and hardworking. The men needed in a woman the ability to run the household and maintain the family’s status. Then, when modern education came with colonization, men were often the only ones to benefit from these changes. Women remained stuck in their traditional roles, while men were able to expand their world through education.
“I had to beg your grandfather to allow your father to attend school and it cost me a lot for him to let me send your aunty too,” explained my grandmother. “With only one hectare of cocoa I paid for their fees and books, but to him I was spoiling my daughter instead of building her a future with a good husband.”
Marrying a child is sometimes perceived as a strategy for economic survival. It helps remove the financial burden of caring for and feeding the girl, while additional financial support from the new husband may be used for the education of the family’s boys. Another well documented reason given for marrying a young girl is to preserve her, and her family’s, honour. Thus, marrying the girls—as early as they enter puberty—is a way of preventing premarital sex and avoiding out-of-marriage pregnancies, which would bring shame to the father.
But these measures to keep young girls “safe” have dire consequences, as documented in the World Health Organization and United Nations Population Fund’s joint publication titled “Married Adolescents: No Place for Safety.” Not only does early marriage deprive girls of their adolescence, but it also puts them at risk as these girls are forced to have unsafe sex within their marriage with an older and sexually experienced man, who may be infected with HIV or other STDs. “Married Adolescents” reports that every 10 years, 100 million girls will marry before their 18th birthday. The younger the bride, the more chance there is of conditioning her with the “appropriate” subservient behaviour. In most cases where the girls do not consent, they end up being beaten, maltreated and turned into slaves. They are likely to suffer from poor hygienic, health and sexual conditions. They often end up with pregnancy complications and psychological disturbance for a condition their body and morality is not prepared and ready to endure.
In Cote d’Ivoire, early after independence, the government put some measures in place to regulate marriage practices. The age for a man to enter into marriage is 20-years-old and 18-years-old for a woman. But this regulation is not respected as many claim that child marriage is a part of traditional and cultural practices that the government should not meddle with, leaving the state with little means to control or prevent this phenomenon. The campaign to provide free education to girls even failed as the girls were too frightened to oppose the males in their households.
Constance Yai, from the Ivorian Association for Women’s Rights, works with rural and urban communities to educate all on the consequences of early and forced marriages. “There is complicity between the African governments and populations which are hostile to changes for women. We call it the anti-women conspiracy in Cote d'Ivoire,” says Yai, which makes her work much more difficult.
As women and girl continue to suffer the consequences of the “anti-women conspiracy,” the NGO Women in Law and Development in Africa, established in 1999, has built a centre called «la Maison Akwaba» that will serve as a safe haven for victims. The centre, which cost almost US$25,000, is comprised of one gynaecologic and one psychological block, one dormitory, a counselling room and a reception hall. They intend to give medical as well as judicial support to the girls and women already affected by early marriage and other types of abuse and mistreatment. .
These programs and others in Africa are doing what they can to help, but often the roots of the problems that girls face are not adequately addressed at all levels, leaving good intentions, but little progress.
The cultural lessons that young girls are still taught in many villages and rural areas—that their place is in the home—remains the largest obstacle for many. Girls in Cote d’Ivoire are still conditioned to believe it is a privilege to leave their father’s house, and then as married girls, they see it as a privilege to go beyond the confines of their husband’s house.
“I will never inherit because I am a woman. At least with my husband I can say I have a home and my male children will give me a home,” complained Aisha, who only wished to give her first name as to not discredit her husband for speaking against these customs.
“Even if I do not lack food, I miss my freedom and friends—for 10 years I do not know what I want or I think. All I do is obey and close my eyes on things I dislike,” explains Dali, who like Aisha lives in a small rural commune in Cote d’Ivoire and rarely leaves her home. “But I cannot go back, I have children and my father will beat my mother to death… I still have in mind how he insulted and beat her when she tried to plead for me. I am 24-years-old now and I have learnt that life is not all about dreams and personal wishes.”
The silent consent of these women to their reality, despite their wishes and worth, is a loud appeal to help save those who have not yet fallen into this trap. As the United Nations sees gender equality and women's empowerment to be human rights that lie at the heart of development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, we women have to act and act fast.
The best way to educate a nation is to empower women. In Africa, the education of children is a woman’s affair. If they are empowered, they will surely pass it on to their children, both boys and girls.
Legions of government agencies and non-profits have proven the important role that education plays in eliminating child marriage. Research by UNICEF shows that the more education a girl receives, the less likely she is to be married as a child. Improving access to education and eliminating gender gaps in education are therefore important strategies for ending the practice of child marriage.
Despite the numerous campaigns and progress that has been made, six out of 10 of the world's poorest people are still women and girls, less than 16 percent of the world's parliamentarians are women and two thirds of all children shut outside the school gates are girls. In conflict torn countries like Cote d’Ivoire, the number of girls drooping out of school will surely increase with this decent into violence.
Since Africans value their customs and traditional practices, it is essential to take into consideration their view of the subject in order to implement good measures that will involve each and every actor of the problem, as well as the victims themselves. It is important that men understand and believe that women are not trying to challenge them or take their place in society, but are instead seeking their own place to contribute to development.
We need to ensure free education, with policies that are easy to understand and implement, for both girls and boys. In addition, we must also provide flexible schedules to allow girls to meet domestic responsibilities where needed. These programs should also include men and women of public recognition and good influence, religious leaders and elders with a vested interest in traditional customs to help. The creation of girl-oriented seminars and programs could show the importance of educating a girl and the benefit for development, not just for a period of time, but for long enough to turn it into a cultural habit.
We also need to adapt the Millennium Goal objectives to the reality in Africa, taking into account the education, comprehension level and financial abilities of her citizens and governments.
We should be able to protect those who refuse to drop out of school and enter into early marriages. This will concentrate on two major actions: Helping those who are affected and encouraging and protecting the mothers who suffer for their personal or their children’s bold action of refusal.
At the same time, the fathers or parents feeling betrayed and humiliated by the refusal of a daughter to enter into an arranged marriage will need psychological and moral help to understand and forgive their families. Also, the girls suffering from physical damage resulting from rape, complications during child birth and trauma will need emergency support and care. Finally, our governments must enforce the laws protecting married and unmarried women and girls.
Girls’ education and forced/early marriages is a problem deep-rooted in most African countries. Actions are being taken, some working, some surely weak enough to fail. But the awareness of young girls today and their wish of change is encouraging. With more effort put into creating solutions unique to African customs and a willingness to succeed, we will surely come up with the best methods adapted to each community.
I see Africa tomorrow and I see girls and women smiling—smiles of fulfilment, smiles of empowerment. I see freedom in their eyes.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.