The sheer number of child marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM) across African communities is reaching alarming levels, participants at a United Nations women conference in Lagos have said.
The conference which opened in Lagos, Tuesday, is aimed as mobilising action and engaging traditional rulers in Africa towards ending child marriage and female genital mutilation on the continent.
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, the Africa Union goodwill ambassador for early child marriage (ECM), while presenting a multi-country analytical study of legislation, policies, interventions and cultural practices on child marriage, said the figures do not look good for Africa.
"125 million of more than 700 million women alive today and married as a child live in Africa," she said.
"That is 17 per cent of the total world figure and the majority of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. Regionally, 11.6 per cent and 42.8 per cent of girls are married by the age of 15 and 18 respectively."
According to the UN ambassador, on a national average, Niger has 76 per cent of girls married by 18, Chad 72 per cent, the Central Africa Republic 68 per cent, Burkina Faso 52 per cent, and Nigeria 44 per cent.
She, however, noted that although Nigeria is ranked at the bottom, in terms of actual number of girls, the country has more incidences of child marriage than the others.
Jumai Mohammed, who represented the Minister for Women Affairs, Aisha Abubakar, said child marriage was very common in Kano State.
"Child marriage is prevalent in the north with an estimated 65 percent of girls below 18 already married. Although there are no reliable data, about 50 million will be married if there are no interventions."
On the implication of such early marriages, Mrs Mohammed said 65 per cent of obstetrics fistula occurs in girls below 18 largely due to early childbirth.
Delivering the keynote address, Haliru Yahaya, the Emir of Shongai, said leaders who fail to do anything against FGM and child marriage are also perpetrators.
"We have been called protectors, if we are so called and these things happen under us then we are perpetrators," he said.
"I know we (traditional rulers) get ignored from time to time and I can say that we have procured more stability for this country than any government. Involving traditional rulers in goals like these is key to achieving them.
"A classical example of this is when a few years ago, Nigeria became a pariah state due to polio but when traditional rulers were consulted on its eradication, we gave orders and two years after, polio came down by 90 percent."
Mr Yahaya said a way to tackle early marriage is to ensure girls are compulsorily kept in school till they finish their secondary education.
"I am a medical doctor and if you see a girl with VVF (vesicovaginal fistula), you will be staunchly against child marriage. A girl with VVF has no future, although there are surgical operations to correct it but they are quite complicated because of the size of the area and then after the surgery, everything fails again."
Earlier, Edward Kallon, the UN resident humanitarian coordinator, said if nothing is done to accelerate progress, the number of child brides in sub-Saharan Africa would double by 2050, and sub-Saharan Africa would overtake South Asia to become the region with the largest number of child brides in the world.
"The sheer scale of these numbers is shocking," he said.
"But when we simply talk about numbers, we are doing a disservice to what they actually mean. Each number represents a young girl who has the fundamental rights to make decisions that affect her life but who has been prevented from exercising that right. Every single of those individual girls matters."
He expressed confidence that the gathering of traditional and cultural leaders on the subject would help to get a "new global spotlight and re-energize the movement to end child and forced marriage and FGM.
"Strong leadership and commitment of traditional and religious leaders are critical to winning the fight against child marriage and FGM," he said.