Violence against women and girls comes in many forms.  What some of us may not have applied our minds to is that the betrothal of an underage girl to an older man against her will is a violation.

When girls under 18 years are married off, what it does to them physically, psychologically, emotionally, and health-wise can traumatise them for the rest of their lives. They may end up as dropouts from school, suffer abusive marriage at the hands of an older man and face risks involved in teenage pregnancy.  

To bring an end to such abuse of young girls in our society and societies around the globe, Zonta International, an organization advancing the status of women and girls has set aside sixteen days, from 25th November to 10th December 2018, to actively campaign against the practice of families giving their young girls off into marriages.

It used to be the case when families would focus their meager financial resources on the education for their sons and nephews with the notion that the girls would be married off to lessen their financial burdens.  It was seen then as a norm, a means to an end for as long as the tradition and customs of the people accepted betrothal of girls under the age of 18. The future of the victim of child marriage was not a concern.  Well, not anymore in this twenty-first century.

The consequences of child marriages, according to a 2016 situational analysis of adolescent girls and young women in Ghana, published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) include dropping out of school, pregnancy complications, loss of autonomy and gender-based violence against girls.

The practice of child marriage is against the 1998 Children’s Act as well as the Constitution of Ghana.  Whereas the Constitution defines a child as a person below the age of 18 and who require care, support, guidance and protection from adults, Clause 14(1) of the 1998 Children’s Act states categorically that no person shall force a child to be betrothed, to be the subject of a dowry transaction; or to be married.  It goes further to indicate that the minimum age of marriage of whatever kind shall be 18 years. 

What is more, early marriage is frowned on globally.  Article 16(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that marriage shall be entered into only with free and full consent of the intending spouses.  Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) also states that women should have the same right as men to “freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage” and that the minimum age of marriage shall be 18 years.   

There is clearly enough laws, both national and international, disapproving of child marriage due to its inimical nature and the risks it poses for young girls.  Laws are made to protect us and to help shape society’s attitude.  It would therefore be wrong for any country to continue to perpetrate child marriage in the name of tradition in this twenty-first century without looking at the health, social and moral implications for the future of those young girls involved.

Underage girls thrown into early marriage are being impregnated at a time when their bodies are not ready for pregnancy.  Their lives and that of the unborn babies are put at risk.  Emotionally, they are not ready for the roles of wives and mothers.  Many of them become social misfits with a denial of education and poverty hanging on their necks.

According to UN statistics, an average of tens of thousands of girls get married off in various parts of the world every single day for reasons to do with poverty, culture and or religion.  Globally each year, 12 million girls are said to be married before age 18.  The repercussions for nations perpetrating child marriage are therefore many.

Per national figures there have been reports of progressive decrease in child marriage, thanks to the commitment to fully implement the 10-year strategic plan framework on Ending Child Marriage in 2016.  However, the problem of child marriage is predominant in the three northern regions, namely, Upper East, Upper West and Northern Regions of Ghana.  Available figures confirm that 21 percent of girls under the age of eighteen years are forced into early marriage.  We are still work in progress. 

Zonta Clubs in Ghana are making a bold statement by joining the crusade to draw more awareness to the ills of child marriage in our communities.  We cannot watch on for nearly a quarter of our productive girls less than 18 years to suffer early marriage with all the attendant risks involved.  The time for zero tolerance for child marriages is therefore now.