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AS IT IS - Africa Launches Campaign to End Child Marriage

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Bridesmaids from Kenya's smallest ethnic group El-molo prepare for a wedding ceremony in El-molo bay in Loiyangalani, northeastern Kenya, June 29, 2006.
Bridesmaids from Kenya's smallest ethnic group El-molo prepare for a wedding ceremony in El-molo bay in Loiyangalani, northeastern Kenya, June 29, 2006.

In most African countries, at least 30 percent of all girls are married before they reach age 18. Many of these girls become a man's wife against their will. The high number of young wives has led the African Union to launch a two-year campaign to end child marriage in Africa.

Parents in developing countries force 14-million girls below the age of 18 to get married each year. Most of these countries are in Africa.

Zenabu is a 16-year-old girl from Niger.

She says that she was taken out of school by her parents to get married. She says her husband beat her if she did not want him to touch her. She ran away to her parents, but they also beat her and returned her to her husband. She later ran away to another family member and now wants to return to school.

Girls married at a young age often develop mental disorders. They may also suffer other health problems because of an early pregnancy and are less likely to get an education. Most of the girls come from poorly educated families and rural areas where young women cannot oppose cultural traditions.

The African Union campaign to end child marriage is aimed at policy action and on raising understanding of the problem. Olawale Maiyegun is the director of the AU's Social Affairs Commission. He says AU member countries should follow and enforce laws and policies that protect children.

"The Charter on the Rights of the Child, for example, has clear provisions on harmful practices against the child. And it's clear in the provisions of the charter that cultural or religious or whatever should not be an excuse and that states must take measures to eliminate them. People use all sorts of excuses to perpetuate what they are doing, but it's not an excuse as far as the commission is concerned."

Among African countries, child marriage rates are highest in Niger and Chad. The rates there are above 70 percent. In Zambia, the rate is 42 percent. Ten government ministries are working together to bring that rate down.

Nkandu Luo is the Zambian Minister of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs.

"The reason we felt that the chiefs should be the ones is because it hinges on customary law and there's also a belief it has to do with our cultures. When any parent is reported to the chief, first of all they appear before the chief because there is the traditional court. So they appear before the traditional court, and they are charged according to the decision by the traditional court. But also they make sure they go and take that child out of marriage and put her back into school."

The End Child Marriage campaign is done in cooperation with African governments, civil society organizations and the United Nations Children's Fund.

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