Nairobi — Millions of girls are at risk of becoming child brides every year. In fact, every year 14 million girls around the world are married as children, equivalent to the entire population of Malawi. As we celebrate Day of the African Child on 16 June, statistics like that should bolt us into action.
Early and forced marriage denies a girl's right to make a decision - over her body and over her life. We must understand that this harmful practice is not restricted to one community, culture or religion - child marriage happens across Africa and in almost every corner of the world.
The question then becomes, how do we collectively overcome this vice and the plethora of consequences that come with it?
The recent launch of the African Union's first-ever End Child Marriage Now! Campaign is encouraging. As is the appointment of Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, who has been at the forefront and a staunch supporter of the rights of girls and young women in particular, as a Goodwill Ambassador for the campaign. The likes of Graça Machel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of The Elders who founded the Girls Not Brides Partnership represent strong African voices and show the leadership and political will that is necessary.
However, we need commitment coupled with action at all levels - from parents, teachers, community leaders, civil society, policy makers and law enforcement to bring an end to early and forced marriages. That is to say that we all have a collective responsibility to transform the norms, policies and practices that deny girls their rights, first and foremost, but that also subsequently perpetuate inequalities and stagnate our development.
Many African countries are celebrating 50+ years of independence and chartering our course for the next 15 or 50 years, with the Post-2015 development agenda and Agenda 2063 respectively. We must recognize that the transformation and sustainable development that we envision for ourselves is not possible when child marriage still exists.
The future we envision for Africa is not possible when our girls are subject to other harmful practices such as FGM that deem them 'ready' to be married. It is not possible when our girls are becoming pregnant and giving birth before they are mentally or physically ready to do so - in fact the leading cause of death in those aged 15-19 in low and middle income countries is complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Many of those deaths are girls who are already married. The future that we envision for Africa is not possible where our girls are often subject to violence and forced sex or when our girls are pulled out of school and into marriage.
Investing in safe, accessible and quality secondary education with rights based and gender responsive curricula is an essential tool to bring an end to child marriage and cannot be emphasized enough. Studies show us that a girl with secondary education is six times less likely to marry as a child than her counterpart with no education at all.
The hundreds of girls who were abducted from their school in Nigeria close to two months ago is a rude awakening, if we ever needed it, that we must not take the education, and the safety and security of our young ones pursuing it for granted. We must continue to agitate until our girls are safe with their families, ensuring that the environment they are brought back to is a safe and conducive one, where their schools are rebuilt, where security is guaranteed and psychosocial support is provided as a step to restoring their dignity.
The future, and the Africa we want and need where all people lead and live lives of dignity will be possible when we keep our girls in school, when we enable girls to delay marriage, pregnancy and childbirth and create a positive and progressive environment that enables them to thrive.
Together, through concerted and collective efforts and actions, we can end child marriage now. Let this be the legacy we leave behind - for generations to come.
Nebila Abdulmelik is based in Nairobi as the Head of Communications at FEMNET, a pan-African organization working to advance women's rights and amplify African women's voices since inception in 1988. Nebila is a pan-Africanist and a feminist passionate about advancing the agenda of social justice. Connect with her @aliben86, http://aliben86.wordpress.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.