COMMENTARY ON CHILD MARRIAGE
BY TEHN-LENNOX AKPETEY, A DEVELOPMENT COMMUNICATION CONSULTANT
Child marriage is a formal union of children before the age of 18. It is a violation of child rights and harmful traditional practice that is affecting young girls. In a response to this situation, fighting child marriage has become both a development and human rights issue. It is believed that, globally, almost 41,000 girls are forced into child marriage every day. Every girl has the right to choose when and who to marry. Nobody has the right to impose that on anyone. According to reports, while the prevalence of child marriage in Ghana has declined over the past three decades, progress has not been made. Development scholars posit that the key drivers of child marriage are multiple and multi-faceted and are linked to gender inequality, poverty, social norms, cultural and traditional practices as well as teenage pregnancy. There is a UNICEF report which states that 1 in 5 girls aged between 20-24 years is married before the age of 18. Child marriage robs girls of their childhood, education, exposes them to sexual, physical and at worst emotional violence and thrusting them into experiences that their young minds and bodies are not ready for, – motherhood. According to the Ghanaian constitution of 1992, any person under the age of 18 is a child and can therefore not marry or be married off. This is underscored by the 1998 Children’s Act, which sets the legal age of marriage at 18 for both boys and girls. But all these laws are not respected. The world over, sex education creates a lot of attention. In some instances, it is uncomfortable to navigate. It is a difficult subject due to its nature. In some parts of Africa, it is even considered a taboo subject in the home. For many families in Ghana, sex is not discussed. Parents find it difficult to broach the subject with their children due to the cultural and religious ethos handed down by their forebears. This can be cured through the provision of knowledge. The development communication strategy should also adopt the mobilisation of all resources to empower girls in schools, hamlets, communities, towns, and cities. Empowering girls provides them with the decision-making power to decide when to marry and when not to. Providing girls with information about their rights so they can take their place of pride in society. Using female influencers who are successful in their endeavours to encourage the girls should be part of the behaviour change communication part of the strategy. Empowered girls can re-shape perspectives and challenge conventional norms of what it means to be a girl. In most communities in Ghana, early marriages are meant to keep the girls away from promiscuity. And also as a means of poverty alleviation. When they are married off, they cease to be the financial burden of the parents/family.
A programme on national television dedicated to empower and educate girls should be the concern of all who want to end child marriage. Victims of child marriage can also be made to tell their side of the story. It would motivate the girls to aspire not to go through what the victims have experienced. All decisions on child marriages are at the doorstep of parents, extended family and community leadership. The strategy should include a campaign to educate parents and community stakeholders on the dangers of child marriage to the personal development of the girls. Community radio can be used to mobilise parents and community stakeholders to appreciate the nuances of child marriage and its negative consequences. This should inspire parents and community stakeholders to stand up for the rights of the girls. There should be an adherence to the laws of Ghana on child marriage. Education should be the gate through which the subject of sex can be broached, no matter the cultural and social inhibitions. Once the girls are exposed to knowledge, it provides them with the power to overcome sexual exploitation. This for many, calls for a need to raise awareness and education through sex education to stop this act. The epicenter for the strategy should be education. It plays a critical role in keeping girls safe from child marriage. The longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to be married off to someone before age 18. Again, education ensures girls acquire the skills and knowledge to find employment and a means to support their families. This can help break the cycle of poverty and prevent child marriages that occur as a result of extreme poverty and financial gain. This should also help in preventing teenage pregnancy and its attendant problems. Offenders should be punished to serve as a deterrent to others.