UNICEF warns of millions more child brides in Africa - but the Church could help change that

(Photo: Compassion UK)

UNICEF has just launched a report revealing that an additional 45 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa will become child brides in the next decade if progress to stop the practice is not accelerated.

Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa highlights that in poorer rural areas that have a higher prevalence of child marriage, there is a need for 'multisectoral and contextualised interventions'. Local churches are ideally placed to provide this. They don't just know the communities they are supporting; they are part of them. That's why international child development charity Compassion works through local church partners.

Efforts are being made by the church partners to combat child marriage by educating caregivers, religious leaders, local authorities and parents to raise awareness of the rights of girls, the importance of their education and the dangers associated with child marriage. However, girls like Djamila* are still at risk.

Djamila and her parents live in a remote village in eastern Burkina Faso, where the rate of child marriage is among the highest. This is her story.

One evening in December 2019, her sister came to her with disturbing news.

"My sister heard in secret my father discussing the wedding ceremony and she informed me that same night. My father was planning my wedding in the coming days," says Djamila. She was just 14 years old.

Pushed by poverty or pressured by tradition, some parents in Burkina Faso do not hesitate before marrying off their daughters at a very young age. The impact of the COVID pandemic has intensified this.

Djamila's father planned to marry her to an older man before her 15th birthday. Worse, the father didn't consult Djamila or her mother about his intentions. Despite the country's legal age for marriage being 17 years old, UNICEF reports that more than 52 percent of girls are married before 18, with 10 percent tying the knot before 15 years of age.

Getting married as a teenager would mean that Djamila's right to education, optimal health and protection would be denied. The dangers of child marriage are horrific and well known. They are at increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, death during childbirth and obstetric fistulas. The impact extends to future generations, with their children being more likely to be raised in poverty.

Djamila immediately informed the Compassion centre staff about her father's terrifying plans.

"I knew that my dad was serious about the wedding. I rushed to the centre and I wrote a letter to the project director. I knew she could, and she would do something to save me from this scourge," says Djamila. Her dream is to become a biology teacher. How could she become someone's wife and continue her education?

As soon as the project director read Djamila's note, Martha immediately intervened by activating the child protection process in collaboration with the local authorities. The pastor of the church hosted Djamila at his house for four days until the issue was resolved, to prevent her from being abducted by her intended husband. The police and the Ministry of Social Affairs workers were also alerted and involved in the process.

"When I read the letter, I couldn't believe what Djamila wrote. She was afraid of going back home as a powerless girl. The pastor took her into his family for her safety. I called her mother for detailed information and she confirmed that the father was organising Djamila's traditional wedding in the next hours," says Martha.

Three days after the centre intervened, Djamila's parents were asked to attend a meeting at the local police station. The police officer explained the law to the family members and the dangers of child marriage, raising awareness of the fact that child marriage is prohibited and is a violation of the law.

After the meeting, her father had a change of heart and today Djamila is back with her parents and safe. Thanks to the diligent intervention of the centre, Djamila escaped child marriage because her parents were educated about the consequences of the illegal practice.

"If not for the support of the centre, I would have been married against my will at a young age. I thank the workers at the centre for saving me from becoming a wife. May God bless them," says Djamila, smiling.

"I can say that child protection is our top priority this season. Because children have not yet resumed activities at the centre due to the COVID-19 measures, we need to keep in touch with each registered child through phone calls, and home visits," says Martha. "I have intentionally identified people from the community who can inform the child protection specialist at any time of any child abuse case."

Efforts are being made by Compassion's church partners to combat child marriage by educating caregivers, religious leaders, local authorities and parents to raise awareness of the rights of girls, the importance of their education and the dangers associated with child marriage. However, girls like Djamila are still at risk.

Djamila has a message for all parents who want to marry off their children: they should stop giving their daughters to men. "I want to alert the world about girls' marriage. It is not good to marry girls against their will," she says. "

"Girls must have the opportunity and freedom to choose their future husbands without pressure from relatives. Stop giving your daughters like objects to men. Give them the chance to complete their education, to be mature before their wedding."

Girls like Djamila continue to advocate for an end to child marriage in the communities, with the support of their families, churches, and the Compassion centre. To show that change is possible. To show the power and potential 45 million girls hold.

For more information about how you can help Stop The Weddings, go to www.compassionuk.org/stop or follow them on social media @CompassionUK

*Name has been changed for security reasons.