“If I only knew what I know now, I never would have settled into marriage. I cannot remember the last time I smiled with joy. My life is clouded with fear, anger, depression, and uncertainty. I don’t know where to turn to for hope, so I’m left here, sitting, hoping for the best, that I’m sure will never come to pass,” Mambo tells me with deep regret.
She was only 13 when her parents married her off to an 18-year-old boy from the neighboring community. From where she comes from, girls should not stay with their parents for long. They belong with their husbands.
Her story is typical of what girls her age go through in the Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. Statistics show that 1 in 4 girls marry before age 18. African countries account for 17 of 20 nations with the highest rates of child marriage in the world. For example, about 55% of girls in West and Central Africa, 60% in sub-Saharan Africa and 45% in Eastern and Southern Africa marry before they are 18. In South Asia, about 1 in 3 girls marry before age 18.
This is nothing to sneeze at; and if nothing happens to prevent early marriages, the numbers will double by 2050.
You may wonder why children turn into brides. Here are some common causes of child marriage:
- Dowry – In African communities, grooms have to pay the bride price before they get the girl, while in Asia, it is just the opposite – girls have to pay the price. Families that live in poverty view this as a chance to get a considerable amount of money. In Africa, some parents will marry off the girl so they can raise the school fees for their boys. In Asia, a younger girl costs less than an older one, so it is advantageous to marry them off soon.
- Family honor – For most families, it is a great honor to marry off a virgin daughter. Parents fear their girls will indulge in sex if they stay longer at home. So, they prefer that she settles with her husband before she thinks about messing up.
- The notion that girls do not hold value – In places like Burundi, girls are only valuable because they can produce babies.
- Men make decisions alone – They decide what is best for their children, and the rest follow suit. When a man says she’s going to be married, that is what will happen.
- Lack of choice for girls – In many societies, marriage is the only way for a girl to support herself and also earn the social respect. It is seen as the only way to secure her future.
- Peer pressure – Some parents marry off their children to please the neighbors or their religious leaders. Some do it because they believe it is the right way to behave.
Effects of Early Child Marriage
While there are national laws and international agreements to end this harmful practice, early child marriage is still prevalent and affects millions of people around the globe.
Child marriage is a violation of human rights.
Girls, who marry young fail to enjoy optimal health, obtain an education, bond with their peers, and even choose their life partners.
- Psychological effects
53% of women who marry before age 18 report having had depression at some point in life, which is 4% more than women who marry later on. They also are more likely to suffer from specific phobias than their counterparts (36% vs. 28%). The mental health effects tend to vary with the number of children a woman has along with other social variables.
- Health effects
Child marriage exposes the girl to more risk for STIs, cervical cancer, obstetric fistulas, death during childbirth and malaria. They also face the risk of premature birth.
How does a child who knows nothing about the world raise another child, into a responsible adult?
Ending child marriage
There is not a fast and hard solution to end child marriage in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. However, if we ensure that all girls have access to decent education, then that will be a step in the right direction.
It is also important for religious and community leaders to understand their role in the fight against child marriage. They have the power to change how people view these practices. The best approach is to empower such leaders with the right information, which they can pass on to their societies.
Since child marriage is a deep-rooted practice that has been going on for generations, we should jointly work with families and communities to raise awareness of the harmful effects of child marriage. This will help shift how they view the practice.
Above all else, countries should establish and implement laws and policies around child marriage. Strong policy and legal system can offer a vital backdrop for changes in social norms, improvement in services and girls’ empowerment.
The Challenges Facing Internally Displaced People in Africa
Today, there are five times as many internally displaced persons as they are refugees. This makes them the largest groups of people affected by forced displacement.
IDPs are people who are forced to flee. Like refugees, they have to leave their homes because of fear of persecution or conflict. But there’s a single fundamental difference between the two: to find safety, IDPs move from one area or region to another but still stay within their country, while refugees leave the country that they live in and cross the border for safety.
Why don’t IDPs leave the country like refugees?
Some IDPs may want to stay close to their homes with hopes that things would get better soon, so they can return. Others lack the physical strength or the means to go through the uncertain and sometimes, dangerous journey to a safer country. Often, the internally displaced persons are stuck in conflict areas where threats like violence restrict them from reaching the border.
The troubles that IDPs go through
When refugees move to another country, they are protected by the international law. However, the IDPs depend on their government for protection from persecution and violence. In most cases, the government may not be able or may be unwilling to offer such protection. For this reason, internally displaced are among the most vulnerable displaced persons across the globe.
But like refugees, they also face challenges like loss of jobs, properties, and even livelihoods. Some get injured, some lose loved ones.
IDPs in Number
African countries have more IDPS than refugees – Precisely, there are nearly five times as many internally displaced persons. Towards the end of 2010, there were about 2 million refugees and 11 million IDPs in sub-Saharan Africa.
For the longest time, Africa has been leading region with the most IDPs in the world. From approximately 26.4 million IDPs globally in 2011, 9.7 million were from sub-Saharan Africa.
One would imagine that because the IDPs are in their country, they would receive a special type of care. Unfortunately, this is never the case. Most African countries still do not have a comprehensive and coherent policy or legal framework to address the internal displacement issues. And while they may have a range of laws that they can use to take care of the problem, it’s highly likely that none directly focuses on protection and provision of help to the internally displaced and affected communities.
Following the Post-election Violence incident in Kenya, for instance, the government initiated Operation Rudi Nyumbani (go back home) campaign and provided goodwill payments to the IDPs. While this intervention sufficed the immediate need, it did not take care of the long-term need as envisaged by the Kampala Convention or the UN Guiding Principles.
Problems facing the internally displaced persons in Africa
Some documented challenges that the internally displaced persons in the African countries encounter are:
- Finding employment
- Finding housing’
- Impact of disrupted education
- Financial difficulties
- Ongoing mental issues because of trauma
- Community attitudes
- Changes in status and roles of family members
- Separation from family members
Impact on children
Children face specific challenges because of their experiences and age. It is difficult for them to forget what happened, so they stay with the scars of violence and displacement. And while children are often resilient, some will:
- Experience psychological effects of trauma
- Have identity and belonging issues
- Go through changing family responsibilities
- Loose out in education
Impact on women
During wars or violence, women and children experience all kinds of abuses, including sexual and physical violence. They even end up losing their husbands or fathers, who often, are the providers. And when they flee, they have to figure out a way to fend for the children. It’s difficult because they have to start from the scratch.
Since the IDPs are moving to a new place, and are doing that suddenly (without preparation), they are forced to stay in temporary structures like tents. This means they will experience frigid nights, lack of clean water, bites from insects, and even attacks from people and animals.
There are three ways to handle the IDP situation: resettlement in a third location, voluntary repatriation, and local integration. Repatriation is perhaps the easiest solution to displacement because most displacement crises are temporary. However, it can be a poor option due to limited prospects of a safe return.
In cases when the displaced people can neither continue to live in the temporary shelter or dire camp nor go back to their homes, then they can be resettled in a new and safe area within the country.
The Plight of African Women Migrating to Europe
“From what I hear, there are plenty of job opportunities in Europe. I believe when I get there, my life will be better,” a Congo migrant.
Thousands of African women risk their lives as they go on a boat journey to Europe in search of what they imagine would be a better and easier living. Many begin the journey with much hope, but sadly end up in despair.
In an interview with one woman migrant who left the Congo with hopes of getting to Europe, one of our crewmembers asked about the trip. Here’s what she had to say:
“That trip was hard and easy at the same time. We started our journey from Congo, and we went through to Cameron, where we stayed for two days. Then we left for Nigeria and spent only a single night there. We proceeded to Niger and then to Libya. I had to work in Libya to get the money to go on with the trip.”
We asked, “How did you find your way to the boat and the smugglers?
“There was a black guy in Tripoli who asked people whether they had the money. When I asked him how much I needed to pay for the journey, he told me $1,000. I worked for a few days and managed to raise three-quarters of that amount, which he accepted. We were hidden somewhere in a bush without food– only some biscuits and a little water. We weren’t allowed to speak. In total, we stayed there for five days. On the fifth night, at around 9 PM, the guys came and told us we were leaving. The journey to the seaside took about two hours on foot.” She says.
We asked, “How did you feel when the boat took off?
“I have never been happier in my life,” she says smiling.
We asked, “Are all of you traveling for the same thing, and if so, what is it?”
“Yeah, most of us, if not all, are traveling to get a better life. We believe that the developed countries like America and Europe flow of honey and milk. Even when you lack shelter, once you are there, life is just good.”
We asked, “And do you believe that?”
“Of course I do believe that. Once I’m in Italy, my quality of life is going to improve,” she concludes.
The shocking reality
Migrant women are on the move for various reasons – to escape conflict, poverty, and devastation within their community or country, to join their loved ones, to further their education, and even to get better opportunities and livelihoods.
Unfortunately, most women migrants go through hell. In our interview with over 100 women, nearly 50% said they had been victims of abuse or rape during their journey. They say they were treated like chickens; they were beaten and denied food and water.
It is true that these women make a conscious decision to trust the smugglers with their lives – because they pay to be able to get across a country that they are not allowed to get across legally. However, they do not sign up for abuse and torture.
Women migrants rely on the smugglers to get overseas, often under a “pay first system” which leaves them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation, and violence including rape and prostitution.
People traffickers demand hundreds to thousands of dollars from migrants to take them across the desert before packing them onto inappropriate boats for the journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
How can we stop women trafficking?
Trafficking is a complex issue that needs a multifaceted approach. What makes it so tricky is the aspect of willing buyer, willing seller. Even so, there is still much that can be done. For instance, both NGOs and government programs can identify the women who are at risk and offer them adequate tools that they require to find work overseas without exposing themselves at risk.
Government and NGO programs should also take short and long-term measures to address trafficking. Short-term approaches include raising awareness and education, while long-term actions include improving the socioeconomic position of vulnerable women and lobbying efforts for reforms on the national laws.
How Lack of Sanitary Pads Affects the African Girl-Child
In Sub-Saharan Africa, about 65% of girls and women lack access to sanitary towels. Most of them resort to shocking alternatives like using goatskin, chicken feathers, soil, leaves, cups, pieces of cloth, and even ashes to hold the periods.
The onset of menstrual periods should be a joyous moment for any girl because it is a transition into womanhood. However, for some African girls, the process is dreaded, because many of them cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. For them, the menstrual cycle comes with frustrations, embarrassments, fear of stigma, anxiety, and stress.
“In Africa, many families survive with a dollar or less every day. It is impossible for a family to spare $0.50 for a sanitary pad when they don’t even have enough for one meal,” says Wakasa, a Human Rights Activist in Nigeria.
Since these girls and women lack the money to buy sanitary pads, they resort to using other methods to prevent leaking, and staining their clothes; they use:
- Chicken feathers
- Tissue paper
- Exercise books
- Cotton wool
- Maize cobs
- Cow dung
- Old clothes
- Old mattresses
While these ad hoc alternatives come in handy, they present a range of health and psychological effects.
According to Dr. Lagat, a Gynecologist at the Nairobi Women Hospital, unhygienic practices are the leading cause of severe reproductive tract infections and even cervical cancer among these women.
She says, “When a woman uses goatskin or old clothes to stem the bleeding, she exposes her uterus or urinary tract to bacteria from outside, which makes them prone to infection. But when they use sanitary pads, the risk is reduced.”
In another context, the fear of leaks, cultural stigma, lack of menstrual materials, and lack of knowledge can put too much pressure on the girls. Some African communities believe that periods only come after a girl loses her virginity.
Lack of sanitary materials also paralyzes the day-to-day activities, because women are forced to stay at home.
“I use scraps of fabric and cotton because sanitary towels are too expensive,” says Nafula, a 19-year-old Kawangware resident. “They sting, they burn, and they irritate my skin. But what’s worse is they leak and soil my clothes. During my periods, I cannot walk around, or carry on with my daily duties because I fear that people will see the blood stain on my clothes, so I seat at home.”
Impacts on education
Studies show that many girls in Africa miss about three to five days of school every month during their menstruation periods due to lack of sanitary pads. Often, they feel unclean, uncomfortable, and even embarrassed to stay in school. The discomfort and the fear of leakage also cause some to lose concentration in class.
For others, the problem is as basic as lack of access to toilets. In most parts of Africa, there’s only one toilet for every 300+ students.
The monthly absenteeism makes it difficult for the girls to keep up with the syllabus, let alone compete with their male classmates, so they remain a step behind throughout their education. Some will even choose to drop out of school to avoid the pressures altogether.
“I got my first period while I was in class. Unfortunately, a boy who was sitting behind me shouted that I had blood on my dress. It was terrifying because no one had told me that at some point, I’m going to have periods,” narrates Maya, a 14-year-old girl. “Everyone started calling me ‘the immoral girl’, and after months of struggling with self-esteem issues, I chose to drop out of school.”
What needs to be done?
Having monthly periods shouldn’t be shameful or a cause for health problems. It also shouldn’t hinder the women from empowerment or education. It’s therefore vital for policymakers to ensure that all school-going girls have access to sanitary ware.
Furthermore, school curriculum should include information about the biological processes to demystify all issues around the sexual and reproductive health to benefit students.
If male and female contraceptives are accessible free of charge in all public hospitals, the same should be for sanitary pads. After all, contraceptive use is optional; sanitary ware isn’t.
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