Ending Child Marriages in Africa: Sian’s Story

Sian is a hardworking, talented and beautiful 13-year old girl. A student in Kajiado County, Kenya, she devotes herself to her studies and her family and thinks about her future.

For Sian and other children her age, especially girls, that future can be uncertain and full of anxiety. Child marriages are still a common practice in many parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. Currently more than 700 million women living around the world were married before their 18th birthday. More than a third of those were married before age 15. The most dire statistics come from South Asia, with 41% of girls marrying before age 18, but West and Central Africa follow closely behind.

According to a 2014 report from UNICEF, girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence. Young teenage girls are more likely to die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women above 20; their infants are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life.

Sian with her mother
Sian with her mother

As a talented and hardworking girl, Sian would be an attractive focus for suitors. Once married, she would likely not see a classroom again, instead focusing her energies on taking care of a household. By the time she is 20, she could have 3 children or more. Hypothetically, when those children reach the same age as Sian, the cycle would continue.

The issue of child marriage is further complicated by the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, a custom that has been banned in many countries but is still practiced covertly in many communities. In early 2014, Sian’s mother started to prepare her for “Emurata,” a Maasai word for the practice. Once Sian went through the practice, her community would see her branded as a ‘mature woman,’ ready for marriage.

Research shows that FGM and child marriage profoundly and permanently harm girls, denying them their right to make their own decisions and to reach their full potential. These customs are detrimental to the girls themselves, their families and the society at large. There can also be profound long-term medical complications from the practice.

Tuesday, June 16 is the Day of the African Child, an annual event to bring awareness to issues facing young people on the continent. This year’s focus is on child marriage—on children just like Sian. The African Union has addressed the practice of child marriage and sees it as a hindrance to the development of the continent, not to mention the affect on individual girls and families. Child marriage is a complex issue that is driven by a number of factors in different societies. To turn the statistics around will take the power of many—government, communities, churches, leaders and other experts.

Supporting girls as they reach full adulthood is one of our missions at Feed the Children. One month before Sian was due to undergo Female Genital Mutilation, Sian’s mother attended a community event sponsored by Feed the Children. During this session, community members came together to discuss the effects of FGM and also to promote Alternatives Rites of Passage (ARP). This training was designed and planned in conversation with parents, community members, and local leaders to gain their confidence and enhance ownership around changing this cultural practice.

Armed and equipped with the right information, Sian’s mother sent her daughter for a one week training organized by Feed the Children on ARP. During the training, Sian and 40 other girls were empowered with information on life skills, sexual health, child rights and responsibilities, and mechanisms for reporting in case of violation. The girls developed a strong bond within the ‘ARP-movement’ as they shared their fears for the future, but rejoiced in their new knowledge and empowerment—especially once they saw the support from parents and community leaders who want to see them thrive. Through our work and the partnership of many others, Sian and her peers will be allowed to be children for a few years longer and dream big dreams for themselves.

This year’s Day of the African Child is themed “25 Years after the Adoption of the African Children’s Charter: Accelerating our Collective Efforts to End Child Marriage in Africa.” To mark this important day, let us take a moment to reflect on areas of improvement in order to save the young from getting into marriage at a time that they are barely teenagers. To end child marriages is not easy given that culture is complex. To end child marriages comes with a call for different organizations to work together as a bloc. It calls for an open discussion by stakeholders at the community, national, regional and continental levels, and coordination between them in order to accelerate the end to this practice.

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Following the one-week training, the girls went through a graduation ceremony. There was a great turnout by the parents, community leaders and government representatives. Here the girls rejoice and dance at the ceremony, champions indeed—and they can thrive even more with you in their corner. Learn more about our international development work, or browse our gift catalog for education-related items to help make the difference in the life of a child like Sian.

–Reporting by Seintje Veldhuis of Feed the Children Kenya