Child Marriage: The Real Killer of Adolescent Girls and Infants in Africa
As I listened to the afternoon newscast on my way home a few weeks ago, I thought I had misunderstood what the broadcaster said on a story about a "Save the Children" report that childbirth is the number one killer of teenage girls in Africa between the ages of 15 and 19. I was further shocked when the broadcaster said that this trend is caused by a lack of access to contraceptives.
Before I had the chance to review the “Save the Children” report referenced during this newscast, one of the questions that emerged for me was, “I wonder what has been done to better understand why so many teenage girls are getting pregnant in the first place?” In other words, what efforts have been made to better understand the root causes or circumstances causing many of these teenage girls to get pregnant? In my view, these are crucial considerations to this conversation that cannot be ignored.
For instance, taking the case of teenage girls’ and infant deaths in Africa, it is a well-known fact that child marriage is prevalent in many parts of Africa. The International Center for Research on Women (or ICRW), a nonprofit organization “leading efforts to find solutions that will eliminate the harmful traditional practice of child marriage,” reports that 15 of the 20 countries considered child marriage "hot spots" are located in Africa. Eight of the top 10 countries where these marriages are allowed are also located in Africa.
While the “Save the Children” report highlights multiple dimensions of this global epidemic of teenage girls’ deaths due to early pregnancy and childbirth, I will focus on the issue of child marriage. The report acknowledges that, “Early pregnancy is intrinsically linked to the practice of child marriage. An estimated 10 million girls under 18 years old are married every year, the equivalent of more than 25,000 every day.”
The report also explains that many countries still have national laws that permit marriage under the age of 18. It is legal for a girl to be married at 15 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad and Tanzania, for instance, and at age 16 in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Senegal. Such laws are in breach of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
The “Save the Children” report further identifies what I believe is a critical dimension to understanding some of the root causes of the epidemic of teenage girls and infant deaths as a result of pregnancy or child birth. I feel that the issue of states’ complacency on addressing the issue of child marriage requires more in-depth exploration and attention than it was given in this report and the newscast I listened to a few weeks ago. To their credit, “Save the Children” notes that “even in countries where laws do exist to protect children from early marriage, these laws are often not enforced" and this “can be due to pervasive and entrenched cultural traditions or religious beliefs.”
I imagine that keeping the issue of “pervasive and entrenched cultural tradition and religious beliefs” as a critical focus in this conversation could add great value to the process of addressing the issue of teenage girls’ and infant deaths due to complications from early pregnancy and childbirth often associated with child marriage, rape, and incest amongst other things.
This process would include creating the conditions for “transformative learning” that would help shift existing mental models that perpetuate and sustain the thinking and practice that children—that is, minors—can become wives (often to older men) and mothers of other children. It would also help shift the existing acceptability of taking advantage of children’s vulnerability to target them for sexual and other forms of exploitation often by some of the very adults that are supposed to protect them.
In his 2000 book Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress, Jack Mezirow defined transformative learning as “the process by which we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, mind-sets) to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action.”
With “Save the Children’s” statistics showing that an estimated 50,000 teenage girls die each year during pregnancy and childbirth while an estimated one million babies born to adolescent girls die before their first birthday, it is time for the world to focus more on addressing the underlying causes of this problem, like child marriage.
I fully support that “No girl should die giving birth, and no child should die as a result of its mother being too young,” but I would add that no girl should be subjected to becoming pregnant in the first place because she is too young to decide or has no choice in this matter.
These teenage girls are children—or minors—with laws protecting their human rights. As defined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child is "every human being below the age of 18 years." Several articles in this document describe the need to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse, and secure the protection of children from economic exploitation that often comes with the practice of child marriage.
One question worth answering: How could the death of these teenage girls’ and infants be caused by a lack of access to contraceptives when the social and political systems that should be protecting these childrens' rights presently allows violations, like child marriage, to take place?