13 August 2007

Ghana: Girls And Early & Child Marriage


Akos (not real name) was given in marriage as the fourth wife to Baabamu at the age of thirteen. Even though her physical looks could pass for an eighteen year old, she was psychologically undeveloped.

At sixteen when she had her first child, she could not even breastfeed as she did not have enough breast milk. Now at the age of thirty she has six children and still hoping for more.

She is not engaged in any economic activity and is totally dependent on her husband. Akos has neither formal education nor has she learned any trade.

Now that the husband is old, the fate of her children rests in the hands of her older step-children to provide for their upkeep.

This is just many of the ordeal many Ghanaian girls go through when they are given in early marriage.

In Ghana, a child below the age of eighteen is classified as a minor. The acceptable age for marriage is eighteen years and above.

However, religious, traditional, and other values give way for such minors to be given in marriage.

Early Child marriage is prevalent in many developing countries, including Ghana. It is hard to know the exact number of child marriages as so many are unregistered and unofficial.

UNICEF estimates based on Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys, (MICS) and Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS 1987-2005) show that in developing countries, around 65 million women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18.

Child marriage occurs more frequently in rural settings than in urban ones. Girls living in the poorest 20 per cent of households are more likely to get married at an early age than those living in the wealthiest 20 per cent.

Women with primary education are significantly less likely to be married as children than those with no education.

Besides, girls who marry young are more likely to live in poverty, experience violence at home and abandon school.

In spite of legal provisions, child marriage is still practiced in many developing countries.

Statistics by the International Women's Health Coalition, (IWHC) states that the vast majority of those married as children are girls, and if current patterns continue, over 100 million girls in the developing world will be married during the next 10 years.

According to UNICEF, child marriage is a violation of human rights. It forces children to assume responsibilities and handle situations which they are often physically and psychologically unprepared for.

In places where child marriage is practiced in Ghana, girls have no say on when and whom to marry and have no independence once married.

They are mostly much younger than their spouses and sex in child marriage is more frequent. Poor families regard early marriage of young girls as an economic tactic for survival.

Some families consider child marriage a protection for girls from the dangers of sexual assault. It is also seen as a strategy to avoid girls becoming pregnant outside marriage.

Girls enter child marriage with little or no information about their reproductive health, including contraception, safe motherhood, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

Because their bodies are not fully developed, they are at greater risk of complications in pregnancy and childbirth. These often result in death. Pregnancy is said to be the leading cause of death for adolescent girls coupled with health problems such as obstetric fistula.

An Obstetric fistula is an injury of childbearing usually caused by several days of obstructed labour, without timely medical intervention.

The risk that their babies will die in their first year of life is 50% higher than for children born to women in their 20s.

Child marriage is outlawed in many developing countries and several international agreements and conventions also forbid the practice. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the rights to "free and full" consent to marriage and determines that this standard is not met, when a person is not mature enough to make an informed decision.

The International Convention on the Rights of the Child upholds the rights of a child to be protected from harmful traditional practices. The 1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child prohibits marriage under 18.

Yet, child marriage persists in developing countries like Ghana because they lack resources and sometimes the political commitment to enforce such laws.

In Ghana, Civil Society groups are actively working to discourage the practice by creating community awareness of the adverse consequences and demanding enforcement of laws.

Recently there were media reports of a 19-year old girl who had fled from early forced marriage, even though she is not a minor. She was only rescued by the police in Accra after she was chained hands and feet and concealed under the metal seats of a 33-seater Mercedes Benz bus for a 723-kilometre journey to Walewale.

Over the years, human rights activists, particularly women's rights activists, have been fighting to put an end to early and forced marriages.  Just as we were thinking that some achievements have been recorded with the passage of the Domestic Violence Law, Ghana as a nation comes face to face with such a story. The issue needs to be revisited.

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