I Believe in an Africa fit for Women and Girls

I believe in an Africa that is fit for women and girls; that protects their well-being and creates a supportive environment for them to realise their aspirations. As I look at the work done by African states in pursuit of gender equality, I am convinced that the continent is either on course for another dismal episode in the empowerment of women, or it’s on the brink of a women’s rights revolution.

The failure of African leadership in safeguarding the rights of women thus far has resulted in a sad state of affairs, where being a young African woman is perhaps the most perilous form of identity in the continent.

Young African women are at the receiving end of harmful traditional practices such as child marriage, female genital mutilation and girl-pledging which take away their autonomy and put their health at risk. These practices put them at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and are partly the reason why the complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death of young women aged 15-19 years in the Africa.

Practices such as child marriage leave girls vulnerable to violence, too, with child brides more at risk of domestic and sexual abuse than their unmarried peers.

Africa must do right by its young women, who represent more than just a vulnerable demographic, but the very avenue through which African nations can achieve seemingly elusive development goals. We know that when we invest in girls the benefits will be felt by her family and wider community. For every extra year in secondary school, girls can earn up to 25 percent more in adulthood. Educated, empowered girls have babies when it is safer for their bodies to bear them and are more able to negotiate safe sexual relations with their partners.

Having attended the 20th African Union Summit in Ethiopia this year, I believe that there is growing recognition that Africa’s progress will be directly determined by how well it performs in improving the lives of its women and girls. On the side-lines of the Summit, His Excellency Mr. Bon Yayi, President of the Republic of Benin, hosted an event for African Heads of State on ‘Reinforcing the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa’. Speakers  outlined three key steps to reduce maternal mortality on the continent: providing comprehensive sexuality education, ensuring affordable access to antenatal care for expecting mothers and the elimination of child marriage.

I believe it is our role as young Africans to pressure our leaders to turn these discussions into concrete action plans that secure the health of African mothers. In my view, the most important aspect needing intervention is child marriage, which serves as a cornerstone to ending maternal mortality and violence against girls and women. Indeed, a recent study by Professor Anita Raj and the University of California San Diego found that a 10% reduction in child marriage could be associated with a 70% reduction in a country’s maternal mortality rates.

To end child marriage, countries must move beyond the comfort of discussion to introducing and enforcing the globally agreed minimum age of marriage of 18. With the existence of dual legal systems in most of our countries, leaders must ensure enforcement across these systems especially in the case of traditional laws which are mostly used to justify the practice. Stricter penalties must be dealt to offenders, including the introduction of steep fines that should be channelled to programmes meant to rehabilitate existing child brides.

All this will require revolutionary leadership that defies existing norms and creates sustainable mechanisms to ensure justice for women and girls. The theme for Day of the African Child 2013 is “Eliminating Harmful Social and Cultural Practices affecting Children: Our Collective Responsibility”. The concept of “Our Collective Responsibility” is particularly relevant as ending child marriage will require partnership across civil society, governments, regional bodies like the African Union and community leaders.

Day of the African Child offers the opportunity for African leaders to state their commitment to address child marriage and other practices that have harmful consequences for children across Africa. A great place to start would be for African leaders to commit to enacting and enforcing minimum age of marriage laws.

As African youth we are taking the lead in the hope that by standing up for our mothers’ and sisters’ health rights, our continent’s leaders will be driven to act decisively on behalf of its women. As young citizens of the continent we are calling on our leaders to finally spark a women’s rights revolution.

Yemurai Nyoni is  a 23 year old youth advocate on sexual and reproductive health from Zimbabwe.




Broken Childhood

These children have a right to being children

By Nargis Shirazi

I am a woman, when I think I should actually be a girl! I am 15 and I just had a baby last night. I live right next to a school that reminds me of when I was in a school, until I fell pregnant. I did not sleep last night, the baby was crying. I almost died last night! The traditional birth attendant said I was too small. I am alone; my mother lives in another village. I do not know how to handle this baby. My 40 year old drunken husband is asleep from a night out at the village bar. He heard the baby cry at night, and wondered if it was ours. I am crying…I know not anything else I can do. I look out of the broken window and see the school children again. I wish I could still play dodge ball like they do, but I cannot. I had to be given to this man, to bail my family out of poverty. We were 13 in our home and stricken by poverty. I rescued my siblings only to end up in these chains! I had no choice. My mother told me she wanted to have less children…she had no choice…and neither will I.

This may sound like any other story to you…but is more than a story to others, it is a reality. Child marriage most often occurs in poor, rural communities. In many regions, parents arrange their daughter’s marriage. That can mean that one day, she may be at home playing with her siblings, and the next, she’s married off and sent to live in another village with her husband and his family. She is pulled out of school. She is separated from her peers. And once married, she is more likely to be a victim of domestic violence and suffer health complications associated with early sexual activity and childbearing- International Center for Research on Women.  In Uganda more than 4 out of 10 women wish to access modern contraception but cannot. There is an unmet need for family planning. Family Planning alone would reduce the country’s maternal mortality ratio by 33%.Uganda has one of the highest teenage pregnancies in Africa (one of every four pregnancies occurs in a teenager.) By 15 years of age, 24% of girls and 10% of boys are sexually active (debut 16.6 for girls and 18.1 for boys). Yet only 11% of sexually active young people are using contraception-The Citizen Journalist, July 16, 2012.

We need voices to rise up against the girl child early marriages! The time to stand up and speak about access to family planning is now! Let us come together, let us be the voices that need to be heard!

Girls have a right to prepare for their future.

 Nargis Shirazi is Community Based Quality Improvment Coordinator at UNOPS/MVP in Mbarara Ruhiira, Uganda. You can connect with her on twitter, or via email at suripsyc@gmail.com

For more on child marriage, see campaign website for Girls Not Brides

For More on the MVP (Millenium Villages Project), please click here