Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

By: Yumnah Jones

Cervical cancer, obstetric fistulas, sexually transmitted diseases, premature deaths and the commodification of daughters are the ramifications of child marriages. While poverty is a precursor, cultural practices and gender inequality are also influential factors.

Child marriages is as ancient as the centuries. What may be regarded in contemporary times as “child marriages” was the social norm and common practice among tribes and ethnic groups that are older than the presence of Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic faiths.

While technology has advanced, medical progress has been made and the effect of globalization has been felt, groups of individuals has fought to keep their cultural beliefs and practices intact. It is the window into the soul of their ancestral past and a badge they carried proudly, and still do, as they marched forward into an unknown future.

The cultural practice of child marriages is thus still predominant in many parts of the World, particularly in Africa, and can take on many traditional forms such as trokosi in Ghana, Togo and Benin, telefa in rural northeast Ethopia and ukuthwala in South Africa.

While statistics vary from research to research, most speak of the high prevalence of child marriages of which mainly girls, younger than 18 years, are married to males older than them. The percentage of girls married before 18 years of age in all parts of Africa are disproportionately higher than boys, including 77% in Niger, 63% in Mali, 57% in Mozambique, 52% in South Sudan and 43% in Nigeria.

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that a person must be of full age when married and that marriage should be entered into freely and with full consent and the Convention on the Rights of the Child defined children as persons less than 18 years old. However, culturally, child marriages are not regarded as a human rights violation because in many parts of Africa, their young are groomed since birth for marital and child-rearing responsibilities.

Furthermore, the continuation of the practice of child marriages is compounded by the presence of poverty. Through the industrialization of the globe, the situation of poverty and economic imbalances have worsened especially in the African continent. Hence, the need to ensure financial security of daughters, and in other instances, the commodification of daughters through dowry exchanges, to create affiliations between different ethnic groups and to strengthen sociopolitical ties.

Hence, since it is predominantly a cultural mindframe that drives child marriages, who has the right to tell people their own way of living is unethical? How does one change the mindset of religious and cultural leaders against the practice of child marriages? How does one encourage the decommodification of daughters? Furthermore, how does one persuade parents to sacrifice short term benefits in exchange for long term rewards?

While progress has been made with most African countries ratifying the international law on children’s rights, identifying persons younger than 18 years as children, not many governments effectively enforced the abolition of children’s marriages since tribal customs is highly entrenched in African societies.

To end child marriages, culturally-sensitive educational programmes need to be introduced to create awareness on the physical and psychological dangers of marrying girls before they are fully developed.

To introduce feeding schemes and financial incentives to keep girls in school and to lessen the financial burden on poor parents. To create awareness that daughters can also be a financial contributor towards her nuclear family if she receives and continues her education and that her role surpasses that of just being a mother and a wife.

To implement skills-based programmes that focuses on creating entrepreneurs among girls and women to ensure their self-sufficiency. Furthermore, to introduce the concept and practice of family planning so that young women can have some sense of autonomy as to when they are ready to become mothers.

We have no right to tell people their way of life is wrong or unethical. However, we can employ the services of people living within those cultures to receive the buy-in of their community and subsequently, for them to make the much needed change within their own circles on the impact of child marriages and on the rights of the child.

In the words of Graça Machel, “We should be respectful but we must also have the courage to stop harmful practices that impoverish girls, women and their communities”

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