The Community survey 2016 results released by Statistics South Africa indicate that over 91 000 girls in South Africa between the ages of 12 and 17 are married, divorced, separated, widowed or living with a partner as husband and wife, with the latter forming the majority of the group.

KwaZulu-Natal ranks the highest with 25 205 young girls and Gauteng a close second, with 15 929 from a population of three million nation-wide. 

Prof Deirdre Byre, Chairperson Unisa-Africa Girl Development Programme (UNISA-AGDP) launched to promote girls’ rights and highlighting gender inequalities suggests these shocking statistics paint a dire picture for the emancipation of young African children and women.  According to the 2015 Africa Index, 9 of the world’s 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in Africa. The Index further suggests that “although the South African stats are lower compared to the rest of Africa, which represents 125 million of the 700 million world-wide child-brides (or 17 percent), the fact that child brides are a reality in South Africa, a country with one of the world’s best constitutions, is frightening.”

In 2015, a study found that more than one in three of these African women and girls (over 40 million) entered into marriage or union before age 15. Should current trends persist, almost half of the world’s child brides in 2050 will be from African countries.

Prof Byrne further states that child brides are a toxic combination of regressive gender norms that make families regard daughters as sources of revenue, instead of as treasured family members. She notes that patriarchy reinforced by cultural beliefs and practices values the life of a son far higher than that of a daughter due to the status of a boy carrying the family name, continuing the family business, and contributing financially to the family home. Girls are in such an instance seen as a drain on the resources and with the father making all the decisions the girl’s prospects are grim.”

The economic inequalities that besiege society leads to poor families who do not have the resources to feed all their children, “selling” their underage daughters to lascivious men. Social inequities such as this together with the high maternal mortality and violence against women, weakens a society and is not only an issue of women but also impedes the development of Africa. When women are exposed to poor health, illiteracy, lack of control over fertility and employment, or basic human rights, their children pay the price too creating a downward spiral of stagnant economic development and growth.

The only vehicle to decreasing the number of child brides is through education and these appalling statistics only highlights the need for placing girl’s education at the top of the agenda and the relevance of launching the AGDP programme.

The UNISA-AGDP is a joint initiative between UNISA’s Gender Institute, the Thabo Mbeki Africa Leadership Institute and the African Union. The #AfricaGirlsCan campaign aims to foster conversations and dialogue on the importance of African Girls’ rights to equal education and their fundamental freedoms but also to create opportunities for change.

The campaign is a three-year investment and strategic programme aimed at supporting the commitment made by various African Governments, Girl Child Development Advocates and the 2030 Sustainability Development Agenda in promoting the development of sustainable livelihoods, reducing poverty, protecting women from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation, accelerating best practices in gender equality, and create an enabling environment for the empowerment of African girls and women.

 It is vital to keep girls in school to break the cycle of poverty, abuse and child marriages. Marrying young affects a girl’s education and one third of developing countries have not achieved gender parity in primary education. African girl-children are not receiving the same quality or even the same number of hours of education as boys because of three factors.

The first is access to sanitary equipment. Many girls miss four to five days of school a month because they do not have access to sanitary ware during menstruation – a fact that, in itself, points to the poverty index and the feminisation of poverty. The second factor is teenage pregnancies, which usually result in the girl stopping school. The third is the gender norms that dictate that it is less important to educate a girl than a boy because ‘she is just going to get married’.

Disadvantages in edu­cation limit opportunities for girls and women. Their empowerment is essential to economic advancement and social development and as their contribution would have a significant impact on national growth rates. Gender equality is a fundamental human right, not a privilege.

As a society, we owe it to each African girl-child to protect them from marriage, violence and sexual abuse, empower them with knowledge and give them access to a life of dignity, opportunity and prosperity.

Professor Deirdre Byre is the Chairperson of the Unisa-Africa Girl Development Programme (UNISA-AGDP) 

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