Why Ending Child Marriage Needs to Be an Educational Goal

Judith-Ann Walker

Ending child marriage is critical for girls’ rights, health, wellbeing and ability to survive into adulthood. Ending child marriage lessens the burden on health infrastructure and reduces the human footprint of resource poor countries. It reduces human suffering, recognizes human dignity and challenges gender based discrimination. Ultimately, ending child marriage frees untapped human resources and enables girls and women to more effectively contribute to global human development.1

Yet progress has been limited, particularly in West Africa, one of the world’s child marriage hot spots. Five of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage worldwide are in West Africa.2 In 2011, of 14.9 million females in West Africa between the ages of 20 and 24 years, 6.2 million, or 42 percent, were married before the age of 18.3 With 167 million people, Nigeria has the largest population of married girls in Africa: 39.4 percent of all females in Nigeria between the ages of 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18 by 2011.

One highly fruitful but not yet fully tapped strategy is to use girls’ education as a mechanism for reducing child marriage. Enabling all girls to have primary education would reduce child marriage rates by a sixth.4 For each additional year that a girl delays marriage, her likelihood of being literate increases by 5.6 percent and the prospect of her secondary school completion rises by 6.5 percent.5 Increasing girls’ education in West Africa is a particularly significant strategy given that more than 80 percent of out of school girls aged 10-14 have never attended school and are at risk of early marriage.6 Indeed, there is a newly emerged global consensus on the importance of girls’ education as a strategy to combat child marriage—but it has yet to be translated into action in West Africa.

This paper argues that in West Africa there is a fundamental policy disconnect between educationalists and actors who are working to end child marriage that must be bridged urgently. In support of this argument, the paper first examines
the issue of child marriage and its global prevalence. Four approaches to girls’ education in relation to ending child marriage are examined, as a basis for showing that although actors have different ways of approaching girls’ education as a strategy to end child marriage, at the global level, there is an increasing recognition of the need for convergence between approaches. Despite this growing global consensus, in West Africa a policy disconnect exists that hinders effective action and as a result severely limits progress on girls’ education and ending child marriage.

As evidence of the disconnect between the work of advocates against child marriage and educationalists in West Africa, this paper reviews dynamics at both the local and global levels. Interviews with West African bureaucrats shed light on key obstacles to tackling child marriage in this region. Also at the regional level, recent meetings and policy relevant convenings are reviewed to show the disjuncture between policy and action on girls’ education and child marriage. At the global level, the paper reviews the education sector plans (ESPs) submitted by West African countries to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). These present an opportunity to integrate girls’ education and child marriage goals through a bottom up, country driven planning process that drives implementation. Yet this study finds that ESPs also fail to integrate the goals of ending child marriage within the ESP’s girls’ education components. The paper offers explanations for the missed opportunity of the separate paths of girls’ education and ending child marriage taken in West Africa and concludes with recommendations and a call to action for actors at the global, regional, national and subnational levels.

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