Girls in Africa have every right to be children

More needs to be done to put an end to the despicable practice of child marriage across the continent.

Girls in Africa have every right to freely play, explore, learn and grow in safety, writes Mhaka [EPA]

I cannot imagine how a 63-year-old high priest could possibly marry a 12-year-old girl in a lavish ceremony and proudly pose for the cameras while doing so.

It seems inconceivable to me that a man could publicly express undying affection to a child who is five decades younger than him, but Nuumo Borketey Laweh Tsuru XXXIII did just that a couple of months ago, on March 30.

He “married” the unnamed girl in a traditional wedding ceremony attended by scores of people in Accra, Ghana.

It was seemingly a done deal for the amoral spiritual leader, at least until photographs and videos of the so-called “wedding” appeared on social media.

They sparked public outrage and widespread condemnation.

However, prominent members of the Nungua Indigenous community claimed any disapproval of the marriage emanated from a “point of ignorance” as the girl would only fulfil a “customary” role.

In Ghana, the legal minimum age to get married is 18. In fact, child marriage was explicitly criminalised as part of the Children’s Act of 1998. So the predatory and shameless priest had no right to “marry” this child in whatever shape or form.

Fortunately, the police later intervened, and placed her in protective custody.

Stories like this are common throughout Africa.

In 2022, I was devastated by the story of eight-year-old “Nairesa” from Samburu County, Kenya, who was nearly subjected to female genital mutilation and married off to a 72-year-old predator with three other wives, on the orders of her own father.

Thankfully, she managed to run away from home, and after spending three terrifying days and nights alone and hungry in the forest, found help and protection at a police station.

I have a nine-year-old daughter myself. She is just a child. That she would marry anyone, let alone a septuagenarian with multiple wives, now or in three years’ time, is unimaginable to me. I know she wouldn’t be able to cope with the trauma of being separated from us or the trauma of being robbed of her childhood and becoming the “wife” of a grown man. I would never allow this, under any circumstances, to happen to my child. And it pains me immensely that it is still happening to countless children across Africa.

I was disgusted, and heartbroken, by the news of that 12-year-old girl being married off to an elderly man in Accra, but, to be completely honest, I was not in any way surprised.

Making brides out of small children is a shamefully widespread practice with a long history in many African countries,

A long time ago, my own family was offered a child bride as compensation for my grandfather’s murder. He was murdered by a group of men one ill-fated evening on his way home from Watsomba, a shopping centre in rural Manicaland in eastern Zimbabwe.

Years later, the relatives of his killers offered us a young girl as compensation for his violent and untimely death.

Fortunately, our family elders refused to accept their immoral offer.

If not, that young girl’s life would have been completely ruined, and my relatives and I would be forever overwhelmed with immense shame and guilt.

Sadly, the practice of “girl child compensation” has persisted in many parts of Africa, despite many efforts to stamp it out.

Throughout Africa, in many traditional communities girls are either overtly sexualised, to satisfy the whims of contemptible old men, or treated as plain commodities.

There clearly remains a widespread reluctance to free young girls from the debilitating consequences of regressive cultural practices and traditions.

One woman of three in Zimbabwe between the ages of 20 to 49 was married before the age of 18.

Four of every 10 girls in Nigeria are married before the age of 18.

And most worryingly, six of the world’s 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in West and Central Africa.

Child marriages mostly stem from gender inequality, poverty, social norms, cultural and traditional practices, as well as teenage pregnancy.

Girls who enter marriage at a young age often experience serious socioeconomic hardship afterwards, including limited opportunities in education, domestic violence, and serious health challenges.

Young adolescents face a higher risk of complications and death as a result of pregnancy than other women.

Despite these mortal dangers, many societies throughout Africa seemingly remain strongly committed to unfair, destructive and outdated practices.

Girl children should not be sexualised, no matter what the traditions and customs of a particular community are. They should not be forced to become partners, caregivers or mothers while they, themselves, desperately need parental love, guidance and support.

All girls deserve a happy and carefree childhood, filled with love, play, curiosity and learning, much like their male counterparts.

Change, however, does not appear yet to be on the horizon.

According to UNICEF, “Sub-Saharan Africa – which currently shoulders the second largest global share of child brides (20 per cent) – is over 200 years away from ending the practice at its current pace”.

That means at least 200 more years of oppression, violence, trauma and premature death for Africa’s girl children.

Let us remember that the police cannot save every child bride.

And that many 12-year-old girls, thrust into womanhood prematurely, cannot survive the dire complications linked to pregnancy and childbirth.

All African men – myself included – must hang their heads in shame at the continued prevalence of this multifaceted violence against girls in Africa.

It takes a whole society to create the conditions for an underage girl to be proudly wedded to a filthy old man in a lavish ceremony in front of many cameras.

What happened in Accra was not an extraordinary, one-off evil. Child marriages take place in our communities quite openly and many seemingly “upstanding” individuals in society, both male and female, condone or at least conveniently turn a blind eye to them.

It is thus critical to ensure that state authorities vigorously enforce national laws, policy agendas and instruments to protect and promote the rights of girl children.

The African Union says, “Africa shall be an inclusive continent where no child, woman or man will be left behind or excluded, on the basis of gender … or other factors.”

Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the girl child has certainly been left behind.

Every child must enjoy equal protection and rights not only in law but also in practice.

Girls in Africa have every right to freely play, explore, learn and grow in safety.

Girls in Africa have every right to be children.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.