West Africa – December 26 2021

Eradicate harmful practices violating rights of women and girls

Young people, community leaders, policy makers, civil society organizations (CSOs) and gender-based violence and child protection experts came together to share knowledge and rally action to eradicate gender-based harmful practices in Africa.

All stakeholders in Africa have enough instruments to make the changes that will guarantee the safety and protection of girls and women from harmful practices. There are enough legislative frameworks, protocols, and platforms but implementation is still missing. Africa must act now, mobilize more financial resources and produce results

This was the sentiment at the Africa Girl’s Summit 3rd edition held in Niger in November 2021. Young people, community leaders, policy makers, civil society organizations (CSOs) and gender-based violence and child protection experts came together to share knowledge and rally action to eradicate gender-based harmful practices in Africa.

The urgent need to act against harmful practices in Africa

The forms of violence referred to as harmful practices, include female genital mutilation, child marriage, bride kidnapping, female infanticide, forced feeding, breast ironing, among others. These practices deny girls their right to choice, right to freedom to determine their future, and have long-term health and psychological implications.

Globally, some 650 million girls and women have been married as children, and more than 200 million have undergone female genital mutilation (UNICEF). Every day, 33,000 girls under the age of 18 are married, often against their will, and 3.2 million are in danger of being subjected to genital mutilation every year (source UN).

Aware of these challenges and driven by its commitment to create and maintain a caring, safe and nurturing environment for girls, SOS Children’s Villages co-organized two parallel sessions at the summit, and co-organized a youth pre-event under Joining Forces, an alliance of the six largest international NGOs focused on children.

The aim of this participation was at first to allow young people to be at the heart of the discussions at the summit and to give them a voice to represent themselves and others. Exposing young people to such forums helps them to stand up for their rights, while influencing the decision-making processes.

It was also an opportunity for SOS Children’s Villages to advocate especially for girls without parental care.

Sophie Ndong, National Director, and Sallamatu Kamara, 16, a youth advocate, both from SOS Children’s Villages in Sierra Leone, co-moderated the session on preventing harmful practices in humanitarian, emergency, cross-border and conflict contexts. These situations increase women’s exposure to sexual and gender-based violence.

“We need to go the extra mile and get out of our comfort zones,” stated Ms. Ndong. “We need to break through those walls built with belief systems that keep on disregarding human dignity of girls and women. We need more political will and we need to make African states accountable.”

Harmful practices, a deep-rooted reality in sub-Saharan Africa

Root causes of the harmful practices pointed to culture, poor education, and poverty. Honourable Dr. Moussa Sadou Kalilou, a community leader from Tillaberi Region of Niger said they have been sensitizing adults, children and men in the community to make them understand the consequences of the harmful practices.

Child marriage remains a deeply rooted cultural norm in Sub-Saharan Africa where close to one in three girls are forced into marriage. For instance, Niger, the host country of the summit, has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, according to the Demographic and Health Survey conducted in 2012. The reasons behind these marriages are varied, but often parents arrange the union for economic reasons. It is income for the family and one less mouth to feed.

“We have set up child protection committees to check child marriages,” said Dr. Kalilou. “The committee’s work is to monitor commitment at village level and stop those traditions. The community knows their problems and can get their own solutions; they do not need actions imposed on them. They need to investigate causes of the practices and set actions with a clear deadline.”

Sidikou Moussa, Head of the Coalition of Child Rights Organizations in Niger nevertheless insists on the fact that communities should be educated to “care for young girls as part of a family. Do not treat them like a transaction. Look at them differently, in the right way.”

In addition to poverty, child marriage is also linked to schooling.

“Education can eradicate forced marriages because a girl who has been educated knows what is good for her and also knows where and how to get assistance when at risk,” explained Kadiatu, 22, from Sierra Leone. “If there are girls who are not in school, they must be enrolled in training centres so that they are self-sufficient and this can reduce marriages, pregnancies and so much other violence.”

There is therefore an urgent need to boost the quality of education at all levels to keep girls in school. In conflict and emergency situations, such as in the Sahel where schools are closed and children confined to IDP camps, education should continue using tutors in the communities to protect girls from forced marriage.

Insightful stories and lived experiences shared by the young people at the summit demonstrated how these violent practices devastate lives.

Aisha from Nigeria was married off at 12 years old. Married twice, she suffered a lot: physical violence, early pregnancy, AIDS, abandonment.

“I am not happy that so much was taken from me at a young age,” said Aisha, “but I want to be happy. Parents should stop giving their children away for marriage at a young age. It keeps them from achieving their dreams. Governments should abolish these practices that are hurting young women and girls.”

Alimata from SOS Children’s Villages Burkina Faso shared a testimony of a friend who was a victim of FGM when she was 5 years old.

“Since then she has not been able to remove the pain from her memories,” said Alimata. “She confided in me that she is apprehensive about marriage, sexual relations and even excision for fear that the pain will resurface. Personally, I have not experienced this violence but I must say that I have real compassion for all the girls who are victims of this harmful practice, especially my friend.”

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 requires nations in the world to eliminate all harmful practices by 2030. Ms. Ndong of SOS Children’s Villages in Sierra Leone said there must be accountability as well for perpetrators of these practices.

“Those who commit these crimes should not go unpunished,” Ms. Ndong said. “All actors, African states, regional bodies, CSOs, traditional and community leaders, NGOs including young people and the children themselves, need to work hand in hand with the judiciary; they need to coordinate better and establish integrated systems to report and manage all cases. 2030 is around the corner and harmful practices will not be abolished if perpetrators think they can keep harming children and girls and nothing happens to them.”

Practical solutions proposed to eradicate harmful practices violating rights of women and girls in West Africa

For there to be tangible results, their needs to be political will, increased funding and alignment of laws against harmful practices between all countries on the continent.

However, the commitment to end the practices vary from country to country with some investing in efforts to curb the practices, while others are yet to enforce, leaving many women and girls unprotected.

In 2010, the African Union launched the Saleema initiative to mobilize political action on the continent to end FGM - protecting 50 million girls under the age of 15 years from the cut by 2030.

In Sierra Leone, there has been significant progress made to end early child marriage for the last 30 years. The country reported a decrease of child marriage from 60 to 39 percent. Between 2018 and 2020, budget allocations have increased. “Although a lot is yet to be done in terms of FGM, in Sierra Leone we are happy to see this progress being made,” said Sophie Ndong.

One of the strong actions implemented by the government of Burkina Faso is the psychological and medical care of nearly 5,000 women and girls affected by the cut. “I am happy that my friend is one of the girls receiving help from this programme,” explains Alimata.

Under the umbrella of Joining Forces, young girls and women from 12 countries in West Africa presented their manifesto on ending harmful traditions practices at the summit, to ensure African leaders heard their voices. The girls said they would set up a follow-up committee to make sure their nine recommendations are considered, approved and implemented. 

Among them is that governments need to include child marriage and FGM in school curriculums, to train children on the impact of these practices, and for parents to learn as well about their negative effects through Parent Teacher Associations. The authorities should also harmonize laws in all African countries, and set the marriage age to 18 years old.

During the session on “Young People engaging with Member states on Action/Accountability to End Harmful Practices”, Bedilu Shegen, SOS Children’s Villages Deputy International Director Region (IDR) and Regional Programme Director East and Southern Africa, called on the African Union and its Member States to:

  • Invest in building the evidence base  with sex, age and other vulnerabilities disaggregated data on girls without parental care in order to develop evidence-based policies and programs and budget
  • Implement the UN Resolution on the Rights of the Child focusing on children without parental care as well as several regional frameworks including the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Agenda 2063, Agenda 2040 and the Maputo Protocol to promote the protection and care of girls without parental care.
  • Establish and strengthen child friendly and gender responsive mechanisms to ensure the voice of girls without parental care and at risk of losing it is properly heard and taken seriously in planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation relating to matters that affect them including polices and services, such as health, education, protection against violence, abuse and exploitation
  • Reinforce multi-sectoral child protection systems to make services available to all girls at increased risk of abuse, violence and exploitation, particularly those already in vulnerable circumstances.