Day of the African Child: Why we should protect the rights of African children

Jun 20, 2016

June 16, was the Day of African Child. But how did it come about?

By Nixon Ochatre

June 16, was the Day of African Child. But how did it come about?

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (African Children‘s Charter) was adopted by the then Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on July 11, 1990 and came into force on November 29, 1999. In the same year, the Organisation of African Unity declared June 16, as the Day of the African Child.

It honours those who participated in the Soweto Uprising in 1976 in South Africa. On that day, about 10,000 black schoolchildren marched in a single file more than half a mile long, protesting the poor quality of their education and demanding their right to be taught in their own language. It also raises awareness of the continuing need for improvement of the education provided to African children.

Yesterday marked 25 years of celebrating the Day of African Child and the celebrations were held under the theme, Conflict and Crisis in Africa: Protecting all children's rights. As the old adage goes, "When two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers, "Children being vulnerable in any incidence of crisis or conflict find themselves in an environment where they are prone to abuse.

In Nigeria, the Islamist group Boko Haram uses similar practices as shown by the example of over 270 schoolgirls who were abducted in 2014 and subjected to various forms of violence including forced marriage, incidences of child soldiers is a common characteristic of child soldiers in many guerilla conflicts in Uganda,

With more than half a million people fleeing violence and human rights abuses, mostly from South Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, found  in Ugandan refugee camps, Uganda has a key role to ensure that children's rights are protected in situations of conflict and crisis.



Growing evidence shows that in times of humanitarian crisis, child marriage rates increase, with a disproportionate impact on girls. Yet adolescent girls continue to be left behind in humanitarian response efforts. This brief from Girls Not Brides outlines what we know about child marriage in humanitarian crises, highlights a number of initiatives which address it, and includes recommendations on what more needs to be done.

Child marriage rates have increased in some crisis situations. While gender inequality is a root cause of child marriage in both stable and fragile contexts, often in times of crisis, families see child marriage as a way to cope with economic hardship exacerbated by crisis and to protect girls from increased violence. But in reality, it results in a range of harmful consequences.

Child marriage is not being adequately addressed in situations of crisis. It is a cross-cutting issue which requires coordinated action across all sectors from the earliest stage of crises.

1. What do we know about child marriage in humanitarian crises?

  • Humanitarian crises can encompass a wide range of situations before, during, and after natural disasters, conflicts, and epidemics. They exacerbate poverty, insecurity, and lack of access to education, factors which drive child marriage.
  • For poor families who have lost livelihoods, land and homes because of a crisis, marrying their daughter may seem like the only option to alleviate economic hardship by reducing the number of mouths to feed or in some places receiving a bride price.
  • Families living in crisis-affected contexts often anticipate a rise in violence and see marriage as a solution to protect girls from sexual violence, despite the fact that married girls face increased sexual violence within marriages. In many communities, female sexuality and virginity are associated with family honor and parents marry their daughters young to guarantee their virginity at marriage.
  • In some conflict-affected areas, child marriage may also happen forcibly and against parents' wishes.

Child Marriage and conflict

During conflict, women and girls are at increased risk of sexual violence. Rape, torture and forced prostitution, sometimes under the disguise of "marriage", have been reported to be used as weapons of war weakening families and communities often with impunity from the law. The most notable case of child marriage in Uganda was the case of the The Aboke abductions were the kidnapping of 139 secondary school female students from St. Mary's College boarding school by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army on October 10 1996 and 276 female students who were kidnapped from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria on the night of 14-15 April 2014.



Child marriage and displacement

Conflict drives displacement around the world. In some cases families flee conflict zones because of the risks that girls face in such contexts. Displacement itself can also increase girls' vulnerability to child marriage due to the breakdown of social networks and risks of sexual violence for girls.

Child marriage and natural disasters

Over the last decades, the number of natural disasters has been increasing, which threaten access to basic services such as education, adding to girls' vulnerability and risk of child marriage. Several countries with high vulnerability to climate change also have high child marriage rates. The Bududa landslide victims who are yet to get proper resettlement have continuously complained of lack of required resources and food as they lost all they had for survival. This puts the girl child at risk as marriage might be the only solution to come out of their condition.

What is being done to address child marriage in such settings?

There is still much to be done to address child marriage in humanitarian crises. However, examples of the type of approaches that different organizations and government are implementing include:-

  • Identifying risks and needs of girls, and integrating them into disaster risk reduction strategies. This is used a participatory approach to encourage girls to identify issues they face and link with community leaders and disaster risk reduction (DDR) planning structures to share their input.
  • UNICEF Uganda has also developed a new mobile application seeks to bring together separated and unaccompanied children and their families - in emergency situations.
  • Offering alternatives to marriage by providing safe spaces and services to girls.
  • Government with the support of civil society organizations has set up education Centers that offer alternatives to child marriage in post-conflict and post-disaster settings. Services included safe spaces, access to non-formal education including life skills and discussion of gender-related issues, health services, and financial literacy courses for married girls and out-of-school girls living in refugee camps.
  • Running awareness sessions on child marriage with community members in refugee populations.

What more needs to be done to address child marriage in humanitarian crises?

Despite these initiatives, child marriage is not adequately addressed in situations of crisis. Considered a development issue, the practice fails to be addressed within the humanitarian sector, and is not well understood. The following recommendations have emerged clearly from Girls Not Brides members:

  • Recognize child marriage as a critical issue in times of crisis as well as in times of stability.
  • Humanitarian efforts and development programming to prevent child marriage and enable girls to thrive must be complementary.
  • Identify risk factors for child marriage in humanitarian crises by involving adolescent girls from the early stages of crises and including their issues in assessments and planning. Better programming requires gender-sensitive assessments informed by mapping and participatory consultations with girls from the early stages of crises carried out by trained staff.
  • Key community members that have a major influence on adolescent girls' lives should also be engaged to ensure comprehensive assessments.
  • Integrate child marriage prevention and support to married girls across sectors in any humanitarian response from the early onset of crises.

Examples of responses which address both the risk factors for child marriage and support and services for married girls, who are often especially vulnerable and isolated, include:

  • Providing services to adolescent girls (e.g. providing access to quality non-formal education and prioritizing reestablishment of formal education after a crisis; providing safe spaces coupled with life skills programs; economic empowerment; alternatives to marriage; access to comprehensive health information and services including sexual and reproductive health and psychosocial counseling; providing legal support; facilitated access to asylum seeking process, etc.)
  • Considering girls' safety and well-being in all other services (e.g. providing lighting and security in places such as detention centers, water points, and latrines; considering distances to schools and health services, etc.)
  • Ensuring those families' basic needs are met and that they have the resources to care for their daughters without turning to child marriage as a coping strategy.
  • Increasing efforts to keep families together where possible in order to avoid the breakdown of social networks, especially among displaced populations.
  • Working with families, communities and young people to address social and cultural norms which influence decisions of child marriage.35
  • Recruiting female humanitarian staff on the ground and training the staff - including camp mangers - to be able to address issues faced by adolescent girls.
  • Collect data and do further research. Reliable data disaggregated by marital status, gender and age should be collected to provide a detailed understanding of the needs and risks of girls affected by disaster and conflict in various contexts, including for adolescents in the 10-14 age range. Field research and quality data analysis is critical to understand the drivers of child marriage in different crisis-affected contexts and to understand how programs can be adapted for such situations.

According to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS) from 2011, 46 percent of girls marry before they reach 18 years. These statistics are a big deterrent to National Development. With the vision of the The National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy 2014/2015 - 2019/2020 as a A Society Free from Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy. The 2016 Day of the African Child provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the challenges faced by children in conflict and crisis.

More research is needed to understand how different types of crises affect child marriage, how programs which tackle child marriage can be adapted for these settings, and how child marriage can be integrated into humanitarian response efforts. However, research must support interventions to address child marriage, and the need for more research should not be used as an excuse for inaction.

The writer is the regional coordinator of the Girls Not Brides- Uganda and Team Leader at Amani Initiative


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