Child Marriage and Early Pregnancy

This blog looks at the links between early sexual activity, pregnancy and child marriage. Highlighting the urgent need for programmes and policies that address early sexual activity in order to put an end to child marriage in Africa. It proposes research and development of an approach and holistic programmes that address the links between early sexual activity, teenage pregnancy and child marriage. 

In early June 2016 the 39th Plenary Assembly Session of the SADC Parliamentary Forum adopted the model law on eradicating child marriage and protecting those already in marriage. A remarkable achievement that should be celebrated as it shows increasing progress throughout the African region. However, national adaptation of this law may not have the anticipated effects if attitudes and practices that are accepting of early sexual debut particularly among young girls, are not confronted head-on.

Child marriage is a legal or customary union between two people, of which one or both are below the age of 18 years. Combined with early sexual activity marriage puts young girls at risk of school dropout and risks damage to their health from HIV infection or pregnancy before their bodies have matured. The challenge of child marriage in Africa is well-documented, with 40% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa married before the age of 18. This rate is higher in Western and Central Africa at 42% and in Eastern and Southern Africa 37%. Niger is highest at 76% or while Algeria is at 2%.[i]

In trying to determine the impact of programmes to stop child marriage child marriage in the African context we need to closely examine the data concerning the legal age of sexual consent and its probable links with teenage pregnancy. African countries that do have laws to protect children from child marriage also incidentally have some of the highest rates in the world of teenage pregnancy.

It appears that there is a correlation between low age of sexual consent and high rate of teenage pregnancy. Niger which tops the list of teenage pregnancy at 203.604 births per 100,000 teenage females has an age of sexual consent at 13 years old. It is closely followed by Angola with 166.6027 births per 100,000 teens[ii] with the legal age of sexual consent set at an astonishing 12 years old.  Although the legal age of marriage in Angola is 18 years, children from as young as 12 are exposed to early sexual activity. And when they become pregnant, they are sent away to live with their partners in a “marriage” set-up where the man responsible is supposed to take care of his “wife” and child.

Teenage pregnancy also carries a great health risk for both mother and child, leading to high maternal and child mortality rates. In addition to changing laws and implementing programmes to raise community awareness of the harmful effects of child marriage, we need to do much more to identify factors that can positively change attitudes toward early sexual activity that lead to teenage pregnancy and child marriage.

We need to look at the bigger picture by also considering the consequences of low age of sexual consent for girls who are physically, socially and emotionally unprepared for sexual relationships and pregnancy.

In conclusion I recap on what needs to be done:

  1. Understand better the relationship between early sexual activity, teenage pregnancy and child marriage.

  2. Promote norms and practises that protect children from early child sexual activity.

  3. Identify key actors that are best equipped to influence social behaviour towards reducing early pregnancy and marriage. 

  4. Provide targeted sexual reproductive health information to young people. 

By Angelita Silva @Angelita8S