Under the joint UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage (GPECM), experts on ending child marriage gathered last week to recommit to these efforts

NEW YORK, United States of America: When girls are forced to drop out of school because they get married, often well before their 18th birthday and seldom as a choice, it perpetuates a lifetime of poverty and the denial of girls’ rights and ability to fulfil their potential.

Under the joint UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage (GPECM), experts on ending child marriage gathered last week to recommit to these efforts, with a particular focus on East and Southern Africa. The event was attended by more than 200 participants and covered issues ranging from high-level leadership commitment, the engagement of youth and community led organizations, to financing for scale-up and sustainability. In this region, COVID-19 has led to a reversal in gains made over the past two decades and is expected to contribute to 10 million more child marriages as socio-economic pressures mount and poverty deepens.

The GPECM was launched in 2016 with a focus on 12 high prevalence countries globally. It has recorded significant successes, particularly in India and Ethiopia, where numbers have begun to decrease. Yet as the programme commemorated five years in an event on 11 and 12 October, this region continues to be a priority due to the high prevalence and incidence of child marriage: 53 per cent of girls in Mozambique, 40 per cent in Ethiopia, 34 per cent in Uganda and 29 per cent in Zambia are married by age 18.  

Zambia’s Vice President and Mrs. Graca Machel on investing in girls

The high-level event was opened by Ms. Graça Machel, founder of the Graça Machel Trust, followed by Her Honour Mutale Nalumango, Vice President of Zambia.

Ms. Machel emphasized the need to work with men and boys to address toxic masculinities that contribute to the high rates of child marriage. She also called for stronger community-based interventions to end this practice.

Ms. Nalumango said her country was investing in girls and redoubling efforts to educate communities about the direct and long-term impacts of child marriage. Their programmes also focused on girls who were already in marriage: “Our government will not give up on them. Access to education, economic opportunities and health services, including HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health, will help enrich their lives and enhance their futures,” she said.

Ms. Nalumango warned that if Africa is to fulfil its vision as outlined in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, cross-sectoral action is required at all levels to address the root causes of child marriage. These include poverty, lack of opportunities for girls, girls’ lack of access to education, negative social and cultural practices, and gender inequality.

Pregnancy-related complications the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19

Dr. Bannet Ndyanbangi, UNFPA Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, described his personal experiences as a medical doctor in Uganda where he witnessed childbirth complications in girls who were not physically mature enough to give birth. In East and Southern Africa, pregnancy-related complications are the leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15 to 19. He called on governments to enforce laws and multi-sectoral education and sexual and reproductive health and rights programmes that give boys and girls the information and tools to protect their own health and well-being and prevent child marriages.

SADC Parliamentary Forum Secretary-General Boema Sekgoma said that the SADC Model Law on Child Marriage had made inroads in shifting legislation in the region, to provide enabling legal and policy environments to end child marriage through inter-linkages between comprehensive sexuality education, early and unintended pregnancies, and child marriage.

In the past five years, at least 10 out of 15 SADC Member States have made considerable progress in putting measures in place to end child marriage. And at least eight SADC Member States have included comprehensive sexuality education in school curricula to sensitize children on child marriage and the legal age for marriage.

However, greater efforts are required to disseminate information and materials at a grassroots level, working in partnership with civil society, and encouraging role models and mentors to take up the cause. Nerida Nthamburi from Girls not Brides and Dr. Annabel Erulkar from the Ethiopian Population Council testified to the success of targeted, focused and sustained interventions in shifting mindsets in this regard. Experts from civil society, youth-led organizations such as AfriYAN, traditional and community leaders, government representatives and UN agencies highlighted the criticality of partnerships to advance collective work to end child marriage and integrate new and emerging issues such as COVID-19 and climate crises.

Accelerating the pace to end child marriage by 2030

Sustained and scaled-up funding is required to achieve the goal of ending child marriage for each and every girl. The GPECM is currently supported by the governments of Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and the European Union, as well as Zonta International. Donors representing Canada, Norway and the EU spoke at the GPECM event and re-affirmed their commitments to ending child marriage as well as addressing key related issues such as sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and bodily autonomy.

The event was adjourned with a comprehensive outcomes statement that emphasized child marriage as a human rights violation and called upon key actors from different dimensions to accelerate the pace towards ending child marriage by 2030.


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