Child marriage is undoubtedly a global menace that affects millions of women every year and, unfortunately, Ghana falls within the category of the nations with the highest prevalence rates, with around one in four girls marrying prior to her 18th birthday
The 2010 population and census report made a startled revelation on the status of adolescents and children in our society. But just like all matters related to the health of the adolescent girl, that revelation has not received any attention from policy makers and social justice advocates. In the census report published in 2012, table 11 contained data on the population 12-17 years by sex, marital status and region.
The data indicated that out of a total of 3,254,007 children within 12-17 years old, 176,103 representing 5.4% were married. Yes, married as children! The situation is more disturbing when one takes a careful look at the data at the regional level. For instance, in the three regions of Northern, Upper East and Upper west alone, out of a total of 567,554 children between the ages of 12 to 17 years, 43,311 of them were married. Among these married children of the three regions of the north, 23,050 were girls. Indeed, based on these statistics, it has been estimated by the UNFPA that if present trends in child marriage continue unchanged, by the year 2030 more than 407,000 of girls born between 2005 and 2010 will be married before the age of 18.
It is impossible for any nation to address poverty, gender equality, maternal and child mortality with this kind of statistics. Early marriage as it were contravenes the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It threatens the achievement of the main goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primarily education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, and reducing child mortality. A later marriage is a precondition for the attainment of girls’ personal goals of completing school, acquiring key skills and understanding roles in family and in society, which are closely linked to the MDGs.
When a young girl becomes a bride, the consequences are lifelong – for the girl, for her family and for the nation. The common thread in child marriage is that the girl herself has no say. She is robbed of her rights and her childhood. Child marriage undermines efforts to reduce abject poverty and to build a society that is more equal.
Child marriage is a grave breach of a child's human rights and contrary to international and Ghanaian national laws. It is a violation of human rights, contravening both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Ending child marriage will accelerate efforts to achieve a safe, healthy and more prosperous future for girls in Ghana.
Recognising the special needs of women and children, the Constitution, the Children’s Act (560) and the Criminal Code reflect the belief that children and adolescents under the age of 18 do not possess the maturity and the mental capacity necessary to make real and informed decisions about entering into legally binding relationships such as marriage.
Child marriage is practised in all areas of Ghana and there exists certain causative factors that increase the likelihood of it occurring. Girls’ access to education, for example, is a major determining factor. According to the 2011 Multiple Indicator Survey, girls who complete secondary or higher education are far less likely to fall victim to child marriage than those who have no education.
Poverty is another correlative factor in child marriage. The 2008 GDHS indicated that women in poor households were more likely to enter into early marriages than those from richer households. Where poverty is present, marrying off a daughter enables households to reduce family expenses by ensuring they have one less person to feed, clothe and educate. In certain communities in Ghana, marriage is also accompanied with the payment of a bride price, which can serve as a source of income for a family. The presentation of gifts to families acts as an incentive to convince them to give their daughters for marriage.
The lack of an adequate legislative framework that can be enforced to address cases of child marriage. Even though Ghana has legislation for a minimum legal age for sex and for marriage, this is often not effectively enforced.
The lack of harmonisation with customary laws that may condone the practice of child marriage. Globally, child marriage is generally more prevalent in jurisdictions that offer fewer protections for women and girls. The high prevalence of child marriage in Ghana is an indication of the societal attitude towards women and girls.
Strict adherence to traditional and religious doctrines also plays a major role in Ghana’s high rates of child marriage. Most Ghanaian communities are governed by a strong code of traditional and religious beliefs which may tend to encourage practices and mindsets used to justify child marriage. For instance, the Ghanaian traditional setting and religious society both share the opinion that pregnancy before marriage is a disgrace to the family.
This belief leads to the conclusion that child marriage is a preventive safety measure to protect the girl child against immoral behaviour. But for most of the perpetrators, child marriage is just a traditional practice that is repeated simply because it has happened for generations and straying from tradition could mean exclusion from the community.
Gender inequality is another major contributory factor. With regard to child marriage this gender inequity is clearly apparent in the fact that the number of female victims far outnumbers the males. Failure to properly implement laws designed to protect children from being forced into marriage undermines Ghana’s legal system, providing little incentive for perpetrators to stop, and leaving victims with little to no protection.
The impact of child marriage on our developmental process as a nation is obvious. Child marriage is linked to poverty and impacts national productivity. Child marriage is most common in the poorest regions and is often concentrated among the poorest households. It is closely linked with low levels of economic development.
There is evidence indicating that girls from poor families are nearly twice as likely to marry before 18 as girls from wealthier families, as marriage is often seen as a way to provide for a daughter’s future. However, the truth is that girls who marry young are more likely to be poor and remain poor.
Girls who marry young do not receive the educational and economic opportunities that help lift them out of poverty and which are necessary to build a sustainable and prosperous future for their communities. Educated and healthy women work more productively, contributing to greater national productivity and higher GDP. They spend more money on food, housing, education and income-generating activities, all of which reduce poverty levels and promote sustainable development.
Child marriage undermines a child’s right to education. Child marriage denies children of school age their right to the education they need for their personal development, their preparation for adulthood, and their ability to contribute to their family and community. Married girls who would like to continue schooling may be both practically and customary excluded from doing so. Girls with higher levels of schooling are less likely to marry as children. With more than half of Ghana’s population under the age of 25, educating youth is crucial to ensuring a sustainable and prosperous future.
Child marriage entrenches gender inequality. Child brides have little say in whether, when or whom they will marry. In many cases their husbands are much older. Available evidence shows that girls who marry before the age of 18 are more likely to experience violence within marriage than girls who marry later.
Marriage often ends girls’ opportunities for education, better paid work outside the home, and potential decision making roles in their communities. Eliminating gender inequalities and empowering young women requires the fulfilment of girls’ basic needs and their rights such as education, health and nutrition, which are undermined by child marriage.
Ending child marriage will help to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health. Child brides are under intense social pressure to prove their fertility, which makes them more likely to experience early and frequent pregnancies. Close to 90% of adolescent pregnancies in the country are to girls who are already married.
Early pregnancy endangers child brides’ health because many become pregnant before their bodies can safely carry or deliver children. It is particularly severe for girls who give birth before the age of 15 as evidence show that they are five times more likely to die in childbirth than girls in their 20s. Perinatal deaths are 50% higher among babies born to mothers under 20 years of age than among those born to mothers aged 20–29 years.
According to the International Centre for Research on Women, girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Further, infants born to young mothers are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life. Child brides also suffer from the burden of early motherhood, early widowhood, and in cases where the marriage breaks down, are subjected to unequal divorce settlements..
Adolescent girls and young children by nature do not have a voice. Their lives are determined by a complex set of interactions between a host of social and demographic factors. The magnitude of these interactions is determined by factors both endigenous (e.g., sex, age or ethnic affiliation) and exogenous (e.g., social, political and economic environments or urban versus rural area of residence) to the young people themselves.
What are you doing about it? My last call goes to this grey group call “civil society”. How civil can a society be if girls are brides? Let’s rise up and advocate for a comprehensive national strategy to address child marriage in the country. Together, we can do something to protect the rights and health of the adolescent girl!
No absolute conclusions can be made about the relationships between these factors, the direction of causality or how they impact each young person. Drawing these types of conclusions is not the purpose of this article as more in-depth and complex research would be necessary to begin answering the question.
IDAY Ghana organized the day for the African Child in Lakpleku a community in the Ningo/Prampram district on the 16th of June to address the issue of child marriage among girl child under the theme “Accelerating Our Collective Efforts To End Child Marriage And Promote Girl Child Education.”