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The majority of citizens in African countries are younger than 18 years and therefore considered children. Unquestionably, far too many of them die at an early age, live a life in poverty, suffer from abuse and violence and are deprived of the appropriate levels and quality of education. Their basic rights, enlisted in a number of international conventions, are blatantly violated every day. This is of concern to a number of stakeholders in and outside the continent. A coalition of civil society organizations from Mozambique, to take an example, calls for “an improvement in the living conditions of children living on the streets, the abolishment of corporal punishment in schools and in homes, increasing the quality of education (access, retention and completion), development of government programmes and policies to address trafficking of humans in particular children and young girls and for effective government programmes to address inclusion in particular for children with disabilities”.
This is an extract from a report they submitted to the 23rd session of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) which is currently held in Addis Ababa.
Together with Mozambique, Kenya is the other country from Anglophone Africa that presented their reports on the status of children to the Committee of Experts .The Committee is mandated to promote and protect the rights enshrined in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) and to monitor its implementation. The charter was adopted by the African Union in 1990 and operationalized in 1999, making Africa the only continent with a regional-specific child rights’ instrument.
The good news is, that over the past 15 years, African countries have made significant progress in promoting and protecting the rights and welfare of children by creating legal and policy frameworks for children’s’ rights. 47 out of the 54 African states have ratified the African Charter. However, and this is the bad news, many are not taking it seriously enough: to date only 20 out of the 47 states have submitted their reports to the Committee of Experts, making it difficult if not impossible for the ACERWC to effectively implement its mandate.
This failure by many African Governments to report on their progress to protect, promote and fulfil the rights of children living in their countries is a serious cause for concern among national and international civil society organisations. It reflects a lack of accountability towards the most vulnerable and defenceless members of their societies.
It is commendable, therefore, that the Committee of Experts is also undertaking initiatives to promote specific aspects of children´s rights and it strives to give a voice to children themselves. The 23rd session will be dedicating a full day to discuss ways of ending child marriages in Africa.
This issue is one of our top priorities in Plan International. In the context of our “Because I am a Girl” campaign, we released a report* last year which warns that “one in three girls in the developing world will be married by her eighteenth birthday. If nothing is done to stop current trends, more than 140 million girls will be married as children by 2020. That’s 14 million every year or nearly 39,000 girls married every day”. The underlying reasons for child marriage are a combination of poverty, gender inequality and a lack of protection for children’s’ rights. These drivers are frequently compounded by limited access to quality education and employment opportunities and reinforced by entrenched social and cultural norms.
At Plan, we strongly believe that education is the key to averting child marriages as it gives girls more choices and opportunities, and enables them to develop their full potential. Consequently, we have started an initiative in four countries in Southern Africa, namely Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe called “18+ – Ending Child Marriages in Southern Africa” which seeks to outlaw marital unions under the age of 18.
Currently, in the sub-region, there are between 30% and 55% of girls who are being married before they reach adulthood, often against their will. We know from experience and research that child marriage increases girls’ school dropout rate, which puts them at a lifelong disadvantage from which they may never recover. Child marriage often marks the end of a girl’s schooling and the beginning of a life at home. She will have few opportunities to find work, and if she does, her lack of education means it will be poorly paid, making it almost impossible to break free from poverty. Early marriage also often leads to early pregnancies with their elevated health risks for mother and child.
However, one of the most effective means of reducing the prevalence of child marriage is through increasing girls’ access to good quality education. Research shows that education is the strongest predicator of the age a girl will marry and that girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children when compared to girls who have little or no education.
Plan International is proud to present the 18+ initiative during the discussion day of the African Committee of Experts. We believe there is a high potential for projects of this nature to be replicated in other parts of Africa. Especially at this juncture when the continental leadership in the African Union and among African Governments is expected to take bold steps in tackling the violation of rights and protecting the welfare of their children!
Roland Angerer is the Regional Director of Plan International for the Region of Eastern and Southern Africa. Plan International is a global child rights organisation with operations in 70 countries.
* ‘A girl’s right to say no to marriage: Working to end child marriage and keep girls in school’, Plan International, 2013