On Saturday 29th November, I attended a conference at the City of Westminster College in London titled “The Big Early Child Marriage Conference/Debate”. This was organised by the Nigerian Women In Diaspora Leadership Forum (NWIDLF) whose mission is to encourage the Nigerian Woman in Diaspora and the Nigerian girl child to explore, cultivate and embrace her full leadership potentials and utilize the same in creating an enabling environment where the contribution of women in nation building will be recognised in perpetuity. The event was an insightful look into a sphere of African tradition shrouded by a conspiracy of silence.
The welcoming speech by NWIDLF President, Ms Jenny Chika Okafor, was followed by the main panel presentations from distinguished speakers who gave various perspectives on the impact of early child marriage. Councillor Susan Fajana-Thomas spoke on the Social-economic impact; Chief Mrs Yemisi Sanusi spoke up on Mental Health issues and the lack of adequate support for girls who marry early; and Mrs Justina Mutale, the multi award-winning Founder & CEO of POSITIVE RUNWAY: Global Catwalk to Stop the Spread, spoke on the prevalence of HIV on the African Continent and the dangers of infecting the young through early child marriage.
However, the medical perspective given by panellist Dr Fakokunde on the gynaecological and obstetric impact of early child marriage on the girl child was such a shock to me. As a non-medical person, I would not have been aware of these terrible facts and truths. I have taken the liberty to summarise the gist of his presentation below as I felt obligated to share this information.
The gynaecological and obstetric impact of early child marriage on the girl child includes:
· Obstetric fistula – girls aged between 10-15 years old are at a very high risk of obstetric fistula (88%) because their pelvic bones are not ready for child bearing and delivery. Once formed, faecal and urinary incontinence and perineal nerve palsy may result. This is consequently followed by humiliation, ostracism and resultant depression. Unless surgically repaired, these girls have limited chances of living normal lives or ever bearing children in future;
· Malaria in pregnancy – pregnant girls are at increased risk of acquiring diseases like Malaria as pregnancy suppresses the immune system. The Malaria parasite density is significantly higher in pregnant girls who are under the age of 19 years old than in pregnant women aged over 19 years old. Pregnancy increases the severity of the Malaria infection with symptoms including fluid in lungs, low blood sugar and death, with over 50% death rate in affected patients and worse with first pregnancy. Malaria also increases the HIV viral load and raises the risk for mother-to-child HIV transmission;
· HIV and child marriage – for young and adolescent girls under 20 years old, marriage has become a risk factor for HIV infection. This has been shown by several studies of African populations. A study in Kenya demonstrated that married girls had a 50% higher likelihood than unmarried girls of becoming infected with HIV. More alarming for me is the fact that the risk is even higher in Zambia at 59%! In Uganda, the HIV prevalence rate for girls 15 – 19 years of age was higher for marriage (89%) than single girls (66%). For those 15 – 29 years of age, HIV prevalence was 28% for married and 15% for single girls. The study also noted that the age difference between the men and their wives was a significant HIV risk factor for the wives.
Dr Fakokunde explained that young girls may be more prone to HIV infections because:
- Their vagina is not yet well lined with protective cells and the cervix may be more easily eroded;
- Hymenal, vaginal or cervical lacerations increase the HIV transmission rate;
- Many of these young girls lose their virginity to HIV infected husbands;
- STDs such as herpes simplex virus type 2 infection, gonorrhoea or Chlamydia enhance girls’ vulnerability to HIV.
· High infant mortality rate – in Africa as adolescent mothers have a 35% – 55% higher risk than older women for delivering infants who are preterm and of low birth-weight. Dr Fakokunde further added that the mortality rates are 73% for infants born to mothers aged less than 20 years old than those born to older mothers. The infant mortality rates in Mali, for example, are 181 per 1000 children born to women under 20 years old and 111 per 1000 born to mothers aged 20 – 29 years. In Tanzania these rates are 164 to 88, respectively. Furthermore, the mortality rate for children under 5 years old can be 28% higher for children born to young mothers than those born to mothers over 20 years old.
Dr Fakokunde then suggested the following measures to improve the pregnancy outcome in child marriage. My thinking response at this point was that these measures should not even be considered as early child marriage or child pregnancies should not exist to begin with. However, the reality is that we are a long way from there. My consolation then became the fact that these measures are applicable to all pregnant women in Africa.
- Enhanced surveillance of pregnancy
- Good midwifery and nursing support
- Improved access to emergency obstetric services (particularly caesarean delivery)
- Competent medical care for women both during and after obstructed labor
- Development of specialist fistula centres to treat injured women when fistula prevalence is high.
· Financial dependence and domestic violence – Dr Fakokunde further stated that child marriage girls are financially dependent on their husbands and therefore lack the power to make demands upon them. They have little influence in relation to their husbands and in-laws. Girls who marry early are more likely to believe that a man is justified in beating his wife. They suffer violence in silence which may include physical, sexual or psychological abuse. Divorce is often not an option as this is not acceptable to the girls’ parents or sometimes not permitted under religious beliefs. Leaving a husband may also have serious implications on the social or tribal ties that were developed during the marriage.
Finally Dr Fakokunde proposed the following as long-term strategies in tackling early child marriage:
1. Provide free universal access to primary education
2. Working with the elders to sensitize their communities on the importance of sending children to school, with an emphasis on the girl child
3. Implementing a policy that allows girls who become pregnant in school to go back to school after delivery to continual their education
4. Providing girls who are already married with options for:
- Employment and livelihood skills
- Sexual and reproductive health information and services (including HIV prevention)
- Offering recourse from violence in the home
5. Addressing the root causes of child marriage, including:
- Gender inequality and discrimination
- The low value placed on girls and violence against girls
6. Giving families financial incentives to keep their daughters in school or feeding children during school to decrease families’ expenses
7. Political will on our leaders
Throughout the event, we were reminded of the reality of the situation by the data and presentations and more so by the moving and inspiring stories shared by former victims of early child marriage. These amazing women had overcome insurmountable odds to become beacons of hope to others trapped in similar situations. ‘If you want your freedom, take it. Don’t ask for it!’
We also had a guest presentation from Tasleem Mulhall, a Yemen early child marriage campaigner and former victim herself who has dedicated her life to ending this practice in her country. Tasleem was overwhelmed by the inspiring strength and resilience of the African women present at the event.
Councillor Kate Anolue, the former Mayor of Enfield, gave an inaugural briefing of the “Forum For Women in Politics” whose mission is to create gender equality by empowering women through education to raise their political status. She reminded the women at the event of the importance of having women in significant leadership roles and emphasised how women in these roles would be able to allow for positive steer on issues such as early child marriage.
If you would like to find out more about the Forum For Women in Politics, please contact on 07529982313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The evening was hosted by the dynamic Ekanem Robertson and it provided plenty of opportunities to network with the other guests.
The evening was then lit up by a wonderful poem recited by a young Kenyan in the Diaspora, 16 year old Phoebe Ruguru. Phoebe wrote the poem entitled ‘Chains’ to reflect a child’s perspective of the pain and torment of been made to go through early child marriage.
“I have a passion for film making, script writing, poetry and media and I feel it right to use those skills as a way of challenging aspects of society which I feel are unkind and unjust e.g. Child marriages, human trafficking and lack of education. Being involved with movements which challenge these issues is something that I am also very passionate about and it’s my hope that through the skills I have, I, together with others, could make a difference in order to bring upon a better future filled with prosperity and equality. As a youth, I would like to spread the word about the issues which others face because it’s important that people, including the youth especially, know about it and take action.” Phoebe Ruguru
By the end of the evening, I was quite inspired by the passion that Team NWIDLF had displayed. As a Zambian woman in the Diaspora, the whole event made me think of going out to find other like-minded Zambian Women in the Diaspora with whom to work together to set up a similar platform to enhance our voices. When I ran this by Jenny and her team, they were pleased and offered to mentor the forum if called upon.
So Zambian ladies, if you are inclined to do something to try and make the world a little better, let me know at email@example.com so we can coffee/Skype and brainstorm! Who knows, we might be the ones inviting the Nigerian ladies to a ‘Zambian Women in the Diaspora Leadership Forum (ZWIDLF) event!
Thank you NWIDLF for leading the way and for highlighting what can be achieved when Diasporan women work together.
To find out more about NWIDLF and how to join, please visit http://www.nwidlf.org.