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 imperil their health. These practices put them at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and are partly why the complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death of women aged 15-19 in 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, as they are 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 sidelines of the summit, Bon Yayi, the president 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: provide comprehensive education on sexuality, ensure affordable access to antenatal care for expecting mothers and eliminate 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 is key to reducing 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-percent reduction in child marriage could be associated with a 70-percent 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 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 laws on a minimum age of marriage.
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.