SHE SHE SHE: D-Day for Child Marriage: She is a child, not a bride

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Today, the National Assembly of The Gambia will be recalled from its annual summer recess, to open the first extra-ordinary session in the new legislative year, so as to formally legislate the presidential ban on child marriage by amending the Children’s Act 2005, called the Children’s Act amendment bill 2016.

Today is the day when a girl-child will be given the chance to reach her potential, and be allowed to be a child and not become a bride.

It is indeed a day worth marking in our history books, worth celebrating and recognizing, as well as supporting the growth of a child.

It is a day worth witnessing for it is going to put an end to impunity against a girl-child, who was not given a chance to realise her potential when it comes to education, health, social and economic empowerment, as well as to contribute to the development of her country.

She is a child and not a bride and marriage brought her nothing, but endless nightmares.

Every human being on earth deserves to enjoy childhood, grow in peace to be able to harness his or her potential.

Marriage as complicated as it is, is where we expect our mothers to look after the family which includes the man and children; where a woman is most of the time faced with challenges of giving birth, and the domestic work that comes with it sometimes is not meant for a child.

Unlike Female Genital Mutilation that has seen more than three decades of advocacy, ending child marriage in The Gambia has come from being a dream to a reality, thanks to the First Lady’s initiative and campaign against the practice that harms the health and mental well-being of girls.

Listening to their testimonies, one could see the trauma, nightmare and the physical and mental torture they went through in the hands of their fathers, men old enough to baby sit them, whom they call their husbands.

It is heartbreaking, and I wonder what kind of a man marries a toddler when there are lots of matured women out there for you to marry.

How can mentally stable matured men take a toddler as a wife, and be very proud to parade her around, and say I have a “Maanyo ringo”?

 We call on the law-makers to make sure that any man, who parades a toddler around introducing her as a “Maanyo ringo”, be also paraded in the court for marrying a toddler.

They called her “Maanyo ringo” because they fully know that she is a child, but want her for their selfish desires and to satisfy their lust.

We all know that child marriage happens in the communities where we all come from. Most of it was arranged since birth between close relations, and these are people who knew each other for a very long time and have done wonderful things for each other, putting the child in the middle as the price.

So the advocacy and the fight against child marriage starts in our midst, homes, communities since we are the ones that look out for each other.

Our local rulers, the chiefs, alkalos as well as the governors together with our religious leaders are the ones involved in such ceremonies, and it is fortunate to hear some of our chiefs saying they are rallying behind the first lady’s campaign in ending child marriage, which is good; but we hope this is what actually happens in their regions.

We also know for a fact that some parents are justifying their actions, saying if they do not marry them off, they will get pregnant out of wedlock.

It will still be a teenage pregnancy and risks associated with it; it will still be the same, even if the girl-child is in her matrimonial house.

If you marry a girl-child off and she gets pregnant as a teenager, she is still prone to risks and her life is at stake, because at that stage she is not physically, mentally and emotionally prepared to be a mother.

As the National Assembly decides on the fate of the girl-child today, we want them to know that in amending the Children’s Act, they should do so not as husbands, but as fathers and mothers whose aim and objective is wipe away the sorrows of their daughters and restore hope in them, as well as compensate the victims that lost their childhood and cannot tell what it means to be a child.

Let the fathers and mothers who are our parliamentarians know that this is a right and not a favour for the girl-child, and it should be stiffen and made very strict, because the damage done to a child sent to marry an adult is far greater than any man-made punishment.

The perpetrators, when found wanting by the law, should be able to feel the pain and nightmares that these victims went through in their hands.

We endure the law-makers to put themselves in the shoes of the children and hear their cries so they could live in an environment free from violence.

Shortly after the declaration by the President banning child marriage, She-she-she spoke to women’s rights activist Isatou Jeng, programme manager The Girls’ Agenda and advocacy and campaign officer of the Network against GBV.

She has this to say: “Child Marriage continues to be one of the harmful traditional practices that violate the human rights of children, and most especially the girl-child.

“According to UNICEF MICS 2010, its prevalence rate is at 31 per cent in The Gambia with URR being the highest. This is very alarming and needs serious interventions from all stakeholders.

“While we understand that child marriage is a long standing cultural practice, it is important to bear in mind that the best interest of the child comes first, and children must be allowed to enjoy their human rights with the choice to decide when and whom to marry.”

She added: “As a harmful traditional practice, child marriage has devastating consequences that robs girls of their rights to education, health and self-actualization.  It exposes girls to poverty and economic dependence on partners, thereby increasing their risk to face other forms of gender-based violence. The recent pronouncement made to ban child marriage is, therefore, timely and a step in the right direction in fulfilling the obligations owed to the children of The Gambia.

“Strong political commitment such as this is what is required to strengthen ongoing advocacy efforts to end child marriage in The Gambia, and I look forward to seeing words translated into actions where 18 years will be legalized as the minimum legal age of marriage.”

However, the enactment of legislation will not be an end to the campaign on ending the practice. Organizations and institutions working on this issue will continue to engage the general population through dialogue and training to educate people on the negative effects of child marriage, she continued.

She concluded that activists in The Gambia must know that now is the time to amplify efforts in raising the awareness of the people on how devastating child marriage is.

People can stop a deeply-rooted practice only if they are aware and understand its negative effects.

“We will not relent in our efforts to promote and protect the human rights of children, most especially girls, as a prerequisite for a better future where all persons will live in freedom and dignity,” she added.

She-she-she welcomes the ban on child marriage, and we hope that enforcement will not be the problem when the amendment is done. 

Author: Halimatou Ceesay