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No more underage brides
– by Maxwell Suuk
Hassan Iddris married a 17-year-old junior high school graduate at a colourful ceremony in Tamale in northern Ghana. Iddris is 43. He explains why he decided to marry a young girl: “If a woman is grown old before you marry her, sometimes it is very difficult for you to get children. You will try and try and you will not get any. But we need plenty of children.”
Marrying young girls has for decades been the norm in many parts of the country, although it goes against Ghana’s constitution. By law, youngsters are allowed to have sex at age 16, but to marry only at 18.
Otiko Afisa Djaba, Ghana’s Minister of Gender, Children and Social protection, said at the launch of a strategic plan to end child marriage that “we are determined to ensure that all children are in school and finish school. The minimum age of marriage is 18. Grandfathers cannot be marrying girls of the age of their grandchildren.” It is estimated that in the northern region, 34 % of girls are married off before they turn 18.
Gloria Nyam Gyang from UNICEF in Tamale says that globally more than “700 million girls are married or in union” before they reach the age of 18. In Ghana, it is one in every five girls. “We are speaking about 260,000 girls in this kind of union,” Gyang points out. UNICEF wants to reduce that number by half by 2050.
A child-marriage advisory board has been formed to fight against all underage marriages. 19-year-old Victoria Quaynor is part of it. She explains why she joined the board: “In the house next to ours, they married their girl off. The same thing happened to the underage daughter of another neighbour.” Quaynor recounts: “Suddenly I was struck by that fact that if no one speaks out against child marriage, one day it might definitely get to me.” She felt she had to rise up against this custom. She now meets networks of girls in schools and communities to share her message.
Haroon Cambodia, Director of Education in the northern region, says that the fight against child marriage is a very important prerequisite to keep girls in schools. “Many girls are forced to drop out of school because of marriage. They become pregnant and may never return to complete their schooling.”
For the teenage girl Angela Mensah, the solution is awareness raising: “To the government, I’d like to appeal that you allow us the space to engage you during your meetings in parliament. To the religious leaders, please allow us in the mosques and churches to talk about our issues, and to the traditional leaders, we want you to allow us space in your palace so that we can talk about child marriage.”
Maxwell Suuk is a journalist and lives in Northern Ghana.