Accountability needed to end child marriage, improve health access

A view of the panel at the High-level Side Event on Accelerating Efforts to Eliminate Child Marriage in Africa by 2030. Photo by: Ryan Brown / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

UNITED NATIONS — Three African heads of state have warned their peers that without accountability and political intervention, the problem of child marriage is set to worsen, posing a severe developmental threat to much of the world.

“It’s a challenge we all face,” said Arthur Peter Mutharika, president of Malawi, which in February closed a loophole from its constitution that permitted teenage girls to marry with parental consent.

Today, one in four young women will be married during their childhood, defined as being before the age of 18. This often sharply reduces their chances of higher education and economic independence, while increasing the risk of various health risks, including maternal mortality. In Africa, one in 10 will marry before their 15th birthday.

The presidents of Senegal and Uganda also spoke at the high-level event held at the UNICEF House in New York during the official launch of Global Goals Week. It was moderated by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. While 32 African countries have banned child marriage, 23 African member states have no such legislation that bars the practice.

Do we need a new term for 'child marriage?'

More than 15 million girls each year are married before the age of 18. Widely known as "child marriage," some activists argue that the development community needs to find a new term to reframe our understanding of the issue. Devex explains.

“If you don't empower the girl, there is no future for anybody else. The girl is the silver bullet,” she told the seated crowd and panelists, which included Diane Jacovella, the deputy minister of international development of Canada.

There’s a strong economic case for avoiding childhood marriage, said Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch minister of foreign trade and development, who cited a World Bank study that shows if girls stay in school longer, they gain economic empowerment — and the GDP of their nations rise “with staggering numbers.” Finance ministers, therefore, need to be involved in these discussions, she said.

“What we need to end this problem globally … [is] complete political commitment,” said Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, the African Union Goodwill Ambassador for ending childhood marriage. “We need very clear strategies — long-term strategies, short-term, and medium-term strategies. We need to talk about the problem rooted in our culture. We cannot solve it in one, two, or five years. We need policies. We need legislation.”

Across the street, meanwhile, U.N. officials and ministers made a similar plea for adolescent girls and women, with the release of a new U.N. report that calls for greater transformative accountability for young women.

Adolescent girls are routinely not counted by governments, both literally in data censuses and through participation in policy and developmental dialogues, explained Flavia Bustreo, the World Health Organization’s assistant director-general for family, women's and children's health, in an interview with Devex.

“There is a huge data gap, so they are not counted. They are not visible for their health needs. It is an issue about not being counted and not having their face and their voice heard,” she explained, following the official launch of the report, “Transformative Accountability for Adolescents,” produced by the Independent Accountability Panel of the Secretary-General’s Every Woman, Every Child initiative.

The report calls on governments to make universal health care coverage accessible for adolescents, to increase resources for youth through budgeting, and to produce better, disaggregated data on adolescents.

Women and children’s rights advocate Graca Machel called the report a “very, very good start.”

“The most important part is what we do with this report,” she said “How does this go to our governments, to our multilateral institutions, to bilateral institutions — but more importantly also to the young people, for them to listen to [and think], ‘What are they saying about me? Does this resonate with me?’ So we can have the feedback from them.”

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.