In an interview granted to us during the 28th AU summit of Heads of states and governments in Addis-Ababa, the AU Goodwill Ambassador castigated the ill surrounding early child marriage.
What do you say about early child marriage in Africa?
First of all,we should not even call it marriage, when our children are sexually abused; when they are raped;when they are taken out of school; when they are abducted and when they are in forced labour. We cannot provide a name in the language that seems to give a normalcy to a such gross abuse on our children. So yes, I am really excited and grateful that the African Union and African governments have taken a step and launched the campaign to end child marriage. They have adopted the African Common Position to end child marriage. As such, it is a positive step since there is continental commitment on this issue.
As AU goodwill ambassador, what are the actions you undertake to end child marriage?
Everyday, I live with girls. The work I do with Rozaria Memorial Trust is actually around prevention. We must prevent child marriage,we work with parents to raise awareness on the issue, and we work with girls through focus groups to inform them about their sexual reproductive health and rights(SRHR). We also try ensure girls go to school.
We also work with the Ministries of Education so that girls have access to education, and make sure they do not drop from school and are economically empowered.
We cannot justify child marriage on the basis of poverty, nobody gets out of poverty by the little money that is called « lobola » or bride price. In my daily work, whether in my community; exchanging with governments and briefing the media, I try to break the myth.Let us dismistify some of the assumptions that this is our culture. My african culture, is a culture that should respect its daughters, it is a culture of respect of people. We cannot justify a criminal act of people sexually abusing a 12 -year-old and we say it is our culture, we should not allow it!
I am a woman of faith, I am a christian. I have led the worldwide Young Women Christian Association (YWCA). We should not allow faith, our religion should not be abused in ways that affect our children. So we have to stand up as people of faith, as religious leaders and communities and say No! Not in our name, not in the name of faith and community. So the work that we do with religious leaders is very important, that is; we teach that the religious stakes are all about dignity and love. It is about everybody be born in the image of God and that the image of God does not include abuse.
As a lawyer, I insist on the fact that our African governments should include the issue of ending child marriage in their constitutions in order to make sure constitutions are clear on the age to get married at 18 and that is in line with the African charter on Children’s Rights. It is important that we also have legislation that really supports the implementation of that constitutional provision because at times we have all these laws but really they are not enforced. The issue of child marriage for me, is a violence against girls issue, it is a justice issue, it is an abuse that we are addressing but also it is a developmental issue.
When we have millions of our girls dropping out of school due to poverty, it means we cannot recognise this Demographic Dividend (DD). There cannot be DD if millions of our African daughters are been abused.
What is your key message to girls out there, in order to help them break the silence ?
I think it is important to say to girls,to have the courage to look for solutions. When you hear your aunty, your uncle, father and mother giving you an indication that they are going to marry you, talk to somebody else; approach people who might be supportive to you; tell someone you don’t like it or go to the local police and say you are afraid of what your mother or father is talking about . If things are happening at home, tell your teacher in school and if your teacher does not react, tell your headmaster. It is important that girls seek for solutions when at risk. I also want to speak to girls who have experienced child marriage with many children who have been violated. There are young widows, there are young divorcees who got married twice. An 18-year-old girl has 4 children. I want to tell our daughters; this is not the end of your life; you are more than your experience;you can stand up and reclaim your dignity.You can go back to school, you can do something to find ways of providing for yourself and your family, ask within your community.
As a goodwill Ambassador, I will continue to speak out and speak out in order to find solutions. Take for instance, i have started a fund which supports girls to go back to school, it is part of my work and it is an initiative undertaken within « Rozaria Memorial Trust ». We have young women and girls, who are going back to schools, universities like Loveness Mudzuru thanks to this fundraising. We cannot only be out to speak, it is not enough to make all the speeches without practically helping all the girls who have experienced.
And lastly,I have done some researches with regards to my work in Zimbabwe and Kenya. Many of the girls have tried to commit suicide, many ran away from their homes, many at the moment they want to talk about their experiences start crying. The internalisation of trauma is too much. If a girl is in a relationship with a man she never said she wants to marry, that is rape. And this means she is been raped everyday. She is sleeping with somebody everyday, having a sexual relationship with a person she never likes. One girls said to me : « mama i’m ok but i’m only afraid of the night ». I asked her why are you afraid of the night ? She told me : « during the day i’m ok i can go working in the field with my mother in-law and i can go to the river to do my laundry but i’m afraid of the night ». She is afraid of the night because this is when she is alone and been abused. But our society does not talk of it as an abuse, they just say she is married and have sex with her husband while for her that is not sex. Sex is supposed to be enjoyable. You must enjoy your relationship, it must be a respectful relationship. Our daughters must have a healthy relationship where they feel excited to come home and meet their husbands. But our girls are not happy, we need to address the issue of trauma it is no longer acceptable in Africa.
By Elise Kenimbeni