Over 91 000 girls in South Africa between the ages of 12 and 17 are married, divorced, separated, widowed or living with a partner as husband and wife, with the latter forming the majority of the group.
This is according to the Community survey 2016 results released by Statistics South Africa which also revealed that KwaZulu-Natal ranks the highest with 25 205 young girls and Gauteng a close second, with 15 929 from a population of three million nation-wide
“These shocking statistics paint a dire picture for the emancipation of young African children and women,” says Prof Deirdre Byrne, Chairperson of the Unisa-Africa Girl Development Programme (UNISA-AGDP) launched to promote girls’ rights and highlighting gender inequalities.
Prof Byrne says that according to the 2015 Africa Index, 9 of the world’s 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in Africa.
“In addition the economic inequalities that besiege our society lead to poor families who do not have the resources to feed all their children, “selling” their underage daughters to lascivious men. Social inequities such as this together with the high maternal mortality and violence against women, weakens a society and is not only an issue of women but also impedes the development of Africa. When women are exposed to poor health, illiteracy, lack of control over fertility and employment, or basic human rights, their children pay the price too creating a downward spiral of stagnant economical development and growth.”
“Although the South African stats are lower compared to the rest of Africa, which represents 125 million of the 700 million world-wide child-brides (or 17 percent), the fact that child brides are a reality in South Africa, a country with one of the world’s best constitutions, is frightening.
“UNICEF found in a study in 2015 that more than one in three of these African women and girls (over 40 million) entered into marriage or union before age 15. If current trends continue, almost half of the world’s child brides in 2050 will be African.”
Prof Byrne says child brides are a toxic combination of regressive gender norms that make families regard daughters as sources of revenue, instead of as treasured family members.
“Patriarchy reinforced by cultural beliefs and practices values the life of a son far higher than that of a daughter due to the status of a boy carrying the family name, continuing the family business, and contributing financially to the family home. Girls are in such an instance seen as a drain on the resources and with the father making all the decisions the girl’s prospects are grim.”
“The only vehicle to decreasing the number of child brides is through education and these appalling statistics only highlights the need for placing girl’s education at the top of the agenda and the relevance of launching the AGDP programme.”
The UNISA-AGDP is a joint initiative between UNISA’s Gender Institute, the Thabo Mbeki Africa Leadership Institute and the African Union. The #AfricaGirlsCan campaign aims to foster conversations and dialogue on the importance of African Girls’ rights to equal education and their fundamental freedoms but also to create opportunities for change.
The campaign is a three-year investment and strategic programme aimed at supporting the commitment made by various African Governments, Girl Child Development Advocates and the 2030 Sustainability Development Agenda in promoting the development of sustainable livelihoods, reducing poverty, protecting women from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation, accelerating best practices in gender equality, and create an enabling environment for the empowerment of African girls and women.
Prof Byrne says it’s vital to keep girls in school to break the cycle of poverty, abuse and child marriages.
“Marrying young affects a girl’s education and one-third of developing countries have not achieved gender parity in primary education. African girl-children are not receiving the same quality or even the same number of hours of education as boys because of three factors.
“The first is access to sanitary equipment. Many girls miss four to five days of school a month because they do not have access to sanitary ware during menstruation – a fact that, in itself, points to the poverty index and the feminisation of poverty. The second is teenage pregnancies, which usually result in the girl stopping school. The other is the gender norms that dictate that it is less important to educate a girl than a boy because ‘she is just going to get married’.”
“Disadvantages in education limit opportunities for girls and women. Their empowerment is essential to economic advancement and social development and as their contribution would have a significant impact on national growth rates.”
“Gender equality is a fundamental human right, not a privilege. As a society, we owe it to each African girl-child to protect them from marriage, violence and sexual abuse, empower them with knowledge and give them access to a life of dignity, opportunity, and prosperity.”
The programme is designed to identify, develop and promote emerging young African female leaders on their path to greatness. In addition, it will engage with dynamic young women interested in developing transformational leadership skills, equipping them with knowledge in how to address issues facing women and children and the tools required to succeed in today’s world as a woman leader.
The UNISA AGDP will consist of particular focus areas which include a scholarship programme to advance access to education, a leadership fellowship aiming to develop 5000 leaders by 2030, a summit in December 2017, and a community outreach to African countries.
For the leadership fellowship, the application will open in January 2018 and will work in partnership with strategic partners across Africa to identify five high caliber individuals between 18 and 25 years old. After selection, they will be registered to the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI), an African institution which aims to invest in thought leaders to enable them to acquire particular skills and act as agents of progressive African change.
The course will be provided online and each girl will be matched with a mentor for the duration of the year. A key deliverable of the course is required community work to act as ambassadors within their communities as advocates for change.
The scholarship programme aimed at high school levers will launch in September 2018 providing girls from impoverished areas and refugee camps the opportunity to study through UNISA. The scholarship will include tuition, a laptop and internet access as a gateway to a better life.
“Our vigorous project seeks to be the change by identifying talented girls throughout Africa and mentor them whilst they carry on with their daily lives. Our vision is for these girls then, in turn, to become mentors themselves and support other girls in their community and, through our strategic partnerships with other Aid Agencies, to make use of the resources and grants available within their respective countries.
“We simply cannot turn our back on the reality of the impoverished lives of so many African girls and women.”