Young girls are bearing the brunt of bad economic conditions and patriarchal societal practices, often resulting in them being married off long before they have completed school.
Statistics South Africa released a 2016 Community Survey that showed more than 91 000 girls in South Africa between the ages of 12 and 17 were married – either customary or civil marriages – or divorced, separated, widowed or living with a partner.
According to 2016 Unicef data of the same year, 12% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa were married by the age of 15 and 39% were married by the time they reached 18.
The community survey did not ask whether the girls were willing to get married or not but it revealed that KwaZulu-Natal ranked the highest in the country with 25 205 young girls married and Gauteng with 15 929.
One of the major concerns with child marriage is that young girls often don’t get the opportunity to complete school and lose out on their childhood.
“These shocking statistics paint a dire picture for the emancipation of young African children and women,” said Professor Deirdre Byrne, chairperson of the University of South Africa’s Africa Girl Development Programme.
She said, according to the 2015 Africa Index, nine of the world’s 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriages were in Africa.
Byrne argued that the issue of child brides comes from a combination of cultural and economic issues.
“We need to change the economy so that people can see girls in schools rather than being married off to the highest bidder,” she said.
In South Africa the legal consenting age for marriage is 18. Child marriages continue the cycle of poverty for the girls and their families.
Byrne said it was very important to keep girls in school to break this cycle of poverty, abuse and child marriages.
“The only vehicle to decreasing the number of child brides is through education.”
She added: “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.
“Although the South African stats are lower compared to the rest of Africa, which represents 125 million of the 700 million child brides worldwide (or 17%), the fact that child brides are a reality in South Africa, a country with one of the world’s best Constitutions, is frightening.”
The programme, in partnership with the University of South Africa’s Gender Institute, the Thabo Mbeki Africa Leadership Institute, and the African Union, hopes to make education the solution by offering scholarships to girls.
“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,” said Byrne.