NAIROBi, Kenya — “I really want to go back to school so that I can get a job and live a better life,” Changamile told us from her home in rural Malawi. But Changamile married at 16, and she has too much housework and no support from her family to return to school.
Dozens of leaders from countries around Africa, including Malawi, are in Washington through August 6 for the first US-African Leaders Summit, with the theme “Investing in the Next Generation.” The US State Department says it will be an opportunity to discuss ways of “unlocking opportunity.” For a positive return on investment in the next generation, girls like Changamile need to be on the agenda, or it will be a wasted opportunity.
The US government and African leaders surely know that education is key to unlocking girls’ potential, improving their health and promoting equality. But ending early and forced marriages is essential to improving African girls’ access to education.
Fifteen of the 20 countries with the highest rate of child marriage are in Africa. Child marriage often ends girls’ education, harms their health, exposes them to a life of violence and undermines government efforts to promote gender equality and end poverty.
In terms of return on their investment, leaders couldn’t pick a better issue. Governments could potentially cut the gender gap in education in half by eliminating child marriage and early pregnancy, according to some estimates.
Ending child marriage demands a comprehensive strategy to address its root causes and to reach out to girls who are already married. The US Congress recognized this and in 2013 required the Obama administration to develop and implement a multi-year and multi-faceted strategy to end child marriage.
The administration has yet to act on this mandate. Competing side events at the Summit on “investing in health” and “investing in women for peace and prosperity” represent two key discussions directly related to child marriage. This scenario reflects the challenges to creating the holistic approach to unlock the potential of adolescent girls. The US approach to child marriage may remain fractured without a clear, coherent strategy.
Nevertheless, the United States recently made major commitments to ending child marriage, by supporting programs in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. And it has committed to providing health care and access to education to married children, and to raising awareness on girls’ education.
These are positive steps, but they overlook a key area where the United States can have considerable impact: prevention. Research by Human Rights Watch has found that investing in adolescent sexual and reproductive health, including information, services and education would go a long way in preventing adolescent pregnancy, one of the drivers of child marriage in Africa.
Foreign assistance can help, but ultimately African leaders themselves need to take the lead. Fortunately some have done so, recognizing the impact of child marriage on their economies, societies and overall future development, and they are acting to give the girls in their countries a brighter future.
The African Union initiated a two-year campaign to end child marriage in the region. The African Union campaign is ground-breaking. It urges leaders to protect the rights of girls — including enforcing or enhancing legal protections, raising awareness with communities about the harm of child marriage and developing national strategies to combat it. To be effective, this campaign needs to have measurable targets, and real political weight behind it.
There couldn’t be a better time for African leaders to demonstrate their real commitment to ending child marriage than at a global summit aimed at “the next generation.” African leaders and their governments need to outline concrete steps to unlock the potential of adolescent girls—including through policies to end child marriage and help pregnant and married girls to continue their schooling.
African leaders and donor countries like the United States need a shared vision for this effort. Just a few days ago, President Obama showed he understands how important this is when he encouraged 500 young leaders from Africa to make the advancement of women a universal priority.
He and Africa’s leaders can all agree that ending child marriage needs to be a part of that. Investing in the next generation means reaching out to girls like Changamile and giving them a chance to become the next generation’s stars.
Agnes Odhiambo is a senior researcher and Amanda Klasing a researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.