Yvette Kathurima Muhia is the Head of Africa Engagement at Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls fulfill their potential. In commemoration of the Day of the Girl Child, she speaks on empowering them to end child marriages among other issues.
What’s been your biggest challenge in dealing with child marriage issues and where has this been most predominant?
Child marriage is a global problem that cuts across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities, and child brides can be found in every region in the world. The problem is too big, too global and too complex to address alone. Ending child marriage requires work across all sectors and at all levels, from governments and international donors to parents and communities.
The good news is that we are making progress on ending child marriage. Evidence shows that globally, rates of child marriage are declining. But progress isn’t happening fast enough. Due to population growth, the numbers of girls married each year will continue to rise unless we do more to end the practice.
Your organization, quotes UNICEF’s 2017 analysis of Nigeria stating that, 43% of girls are married off before the age of 18. 17% are married before they turn 15. Why do you agree with these figures?
Girls Not Brides uses data from UNICEF’s annual State of the World’s Children report, which provides a globally comparable source of information on rates of child marriage. This data is based on nationally representative surveys that have been verified by UNICEF.
However, we do recognise that some countries do not collect data on child marriage every year, so the numbers may not show much change from year to year. In the case of Nigeria, the 2018 UNICEF figures (published in March this year) are based on Nigeria’s 2016/17 MICS survey – so the figures reported in the State of the World’s Children report are somewhat out of date. However, this is the most recent and reliable data we have available at the moment.
You have a long list of members in Nigeria advocating against child marriages. What value have they been to the cause?
Our members in Nigeria work across sectors including health, education, human rights and humanitarian response and range from small grassroots actors to large international organisations.They also vary in the type of work they do – some work directly with girls and child brides, while others focus on research and advocacy, seeking to bring government attention to this problem.
Nigeria also has the largest number of youth members of any country in Africa. Young people’s involvement is critical if we are to successfully end child marriage, and not only because young people are most affected by this issue. If we can enable this generation of girls to stay out of child marriage, they will make sure their own children do not marry early.
Girls Not Brides is currently deepening its engagement in Nigeria, with the aim of better understanding the country context – including how conflict is driving child marriage in some parts of the country.
What has been the most effective medium to end child marriages in Nigeria and is this an approach that could work in some other climes?
Addressing child marriage is closely related to health, education, economic progress and other development priorities. To be effective, child marriage prevention must be integrated across these sectors.
In Nigeria and everywhere else that child marriage happens, the work of civil society organisations is crucial. Those working at the grassroots have the local knowledge and trusted relationships to begin conversations in communities – particularly with the decision makers at local level. But everyone has a role to play. Governments, donors the UN and others must work together with civil society to achieve maximum scale and impact.
With the Boko Haram insurgency, there have been child marriages. Is this an area you have looked into?
Girls are hit particularly hard and face many forms of violence, and child marriage has been rising at an alarming rate in humanitarian settings. In fact, nine out of the ten countries with the highest child marriage rates globally are considered either fragile or extremely fragile states.
Growing evidence shows that in these settings, child marriage rates increase, with a disproportionate impact on girls. While gender inequality is a root cause of child marriage in both stable and crisis contexts, often in times of crisis, families see child marriage as a way to cope with greater economic hardship and to protect girls from increased violence. But in reality, it leads to a range of devastating consequences for girls.
Girls Not Brides and its members have been researching child marriage in humanitarian contexts, in order to better understand how conflict and displacement drive the practice and to identify solutions. We do not yet have any in depth learnings from the areas affected by Boko Haram, but this is something we hope to learn more about as we deepen our engagement in Nigeria.
Also, climate change seems to be fuelling child marriages in parts of Nigeria. What’s your take on this and what best practices would you advise to keep this in check?
In the past few years we’ve seen growing evidence that extreme weather and natural disasters are linked to increasing child marriage rates. Girls are married off in both times of stability and crisis, because they are seen as being less valuable than boys. But natural disasters caused by climate change exacerbate poverty, insecurity and lack of access to education; all factors that can increase the rates of child marriage.
Governments and NGOs need to pay special attention to the risk of child marriage when they are planning their responses to the humanitarian disasters caused by climate change.
These responses must be driven by women and girls who have been affected by child marriage. They are best placed to understand their own contexts, and can help find ways to keep themselves and their peers safe. It also means, wherever possible, focusing on safe access to quality education for girls, both during and after a crisis.
There is still a lot we need to learn about the link between child marriage and climate change, and we need much more research on how rising temperatures are affecting girls and what must be done to ensure rates of child marriage don’t increase. This will help us target our responses more effectively.
In 2016, Nigeria launched the African Union campaign to end child marriage and its national strategy to end child marriage. How well would you say we have done as a country in this regard?
While it was a great show of political will to see Nigeria launch the AU campaign and its national strategy, it must now turn these commitments into action. The government cannot afford not to take action on this issue – as well as denying girls their rights; a 2017 World Bank study estimates that child marriage costs Nigeria USD7.6 billion in lost earnings and productivity every year.
The government must make ending child marriage a priority. That means allocating resources to ensure that the national strategy is implemented across the health, gender, education, youth and child protection and justice ministries.
As it stands, legal reform in Nigeria is necessary as the Constitution has no mention of the minimum legal age of marriage. The Child Rights Act of 2003 set the legal age of marriage at 18, but this is currently only implemented in 23 out of 36 states. In order to protect the rights of girls and end child marriage, the government must ensure that 18 is the minimum age of marriage, without exceptions, across all states.
Nigeria still does not have a legal age for marriage. Against this backdrop, do you imagine the country achieving its set goals to reduce child marriage by 2020 and ending it entirely by 2030?
Progress in addressing child marriage in Nigeria remains slow for many reasons. Child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and the belief that girls and women are somehow inferior to boys and men, and culture and tradition play an important role in driving the practice. Although the government has made commitments at the global and national levels, it is yet to turn its commitments into action.
With the ever growing population in Nigeria, it is essential that the government takes action to address the issue, or child marriage rates will continue to rise. Policymakers also have a great responsibility to practice what they preach so to speak and not be the lawbreakers – in instances where some policymakers have advocated for child marriage and married girls under 18 years.
This year, the Day of the girl child will be marked around the theme, ‘With Her: A Skilled Girl Force.’ In the light of advocating against child brides, why is this theme significant?
Poverty is a key driver of child marriage, and girls from poor families are more likely to become child brides than those from the richest households. If we really want to tackle poverty and end child marriage we must give girls the tools they need to invest in themselves. That means providing them with the quality education and training they need to earn an income and create a better future for themselves and their families.
When girls are educated instead of being married young, and have opportunities to earn an income, they are more likely to lead happier, healthier lives, and to contribute to the growth and development of their communities. Ending child marriage has to be a critical part of creating a ‘Girl Force’ of empowered girls, and to help ensure we meet our global development goals.