African leaders are to discuss child marriage at a two-day African Girls’ Summit in the Zambian capital, Lusaka (Nov 26 and 27). Hawa Aden Mohamed is a campaigner for girls’ education and rights from Puntland, Somalia. She co-founded the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development (GECPD) in northeast Somalia.
At 15 I was just a young girl attending school. Not many girls had that privilege. Schools were dominated by men from teacher to students. People viewed girls’ education as a waste of family resources since they would soon leave to get married. I remember the many times my father had to rebut critics of his decision to send us to school, and I am forever grateful that he saw why it was important.
At 15 I had also undergone and experienced the pain caused by the harmful traditional practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). I witnessed my own sister die after being subjected to it herself.
I was observing all this and asking myself many questions. “Why does a girl have to undergo all this?” I didn’t have an answer then but I devoted myself to seeking one.
In Somalia, child marriage is widespread and is perpetuated both through culture and religion. Although it has always been an issue, the situation is much worse today with increased radicalisation and weak government. Many girls are now married off at age 14 to 16 and society seems not to blink an eye.
We have also seen situations where, if a family has limited resources, the girls are married off to well-to-do men. Resources gained through this in the form of bride price are then used to educate the boy child of the family or meet other family expenses.
Of course, child marriage is also linked in a way to the practice of FGM in Somalia. Girls who have not undergone the practice are considered unmarriageable. And so parents are forced to subject their girls to the horrors of this practice just to prepare them for marriage or in fear that they would lack suitors.
I grew up in a patriarchal society where women and girls had no choices and all decisions were made by men. I saw men deciding when and who you should get married to, irrespective of what you wanted to achieve in life. I saw girls being burdened with household chores, not being able to attend school.
Ending child marriage to me is ending the circle of poverty that currently pervades the lives of women and girls in my country. Child marriage prevents girls from realising their full potential in life since it inhibits their opportunities for physical, social and economic development.
Child marriage perpetuates gender inequalities in our society where girls do not have equal opportunities to economic development as boys. When a girl is married off, she has to stop going to school and abandon all her dreams in life. Coupled with other social restrictions that go with marriage locally, her world shrinks and her life is confined to the home.
We also have to end child marriage because women and girls have a right to participate in the social and economic development of their societies. With child marriage, girls have no opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills required to enable them effectively participate in this national duty.
Our society should not be seen to be lagging behind when it comes to promoting human rights. Child marriage is a human rights violation that the world community has committed to end and we cannot afford to be an exception.
By Hawa Aden Mohamed, GECPD