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Who will protect our girls?
As a young girl Consolee Nishimwe experienced the worst form of violence any girl barely in her teens could possibly face. At the height of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, machete-wielding rebels were targeting families like hers, forcing them to move from place to place under cover of night.
It was during this time that one of her neighbours grabbed and raped her repeatedly. Soon the rebels caught up with the family and killed her father and brothers, forcing Consolee to flee her country. Now in her 30s and living in the United States, Consolee has recounted her experience in a book, Tested to the Limit: A Genocide Survivor’s Story of Pain, Resilience and Hope. She is often invited to public forums to speak against gender-based violence.
Consolee’s experience reflects the tragedy faced by thousands of girls during the Rwanda genocide and in other African countries in conflict, including the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. As in many parts of the world, during times of civil unrest, rape quickly becomes a weapon of war.
Worldwide, seven out of ten women face physical or sexual violence at least once during their lifetime, according to UN Women, the global agency responsible for advancing gender equality and the empowerment of women.
Yet, rape is just but one of many acts of violence or harmful cultural practices that girls in Africa continue to face. Others include female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced early marriages. Despite years of advocacy against FGM, it is still performed on thousands of girls and many more are being forced to become child brides, at times when the girls are as young as nine. Combined, these practices produce dangerous reproductive health issues such as teen pregnancies, abortions, fistula or even child and maternal deaths.
In countries like Somalia, for instance, up to 98% of all girls between the ages of five and 15 undergo FGM, a practice in which parts of their genitalia are excised and the torn flesh sewn up for non-medical reasons by untrained traditional practitioners, usually elderly women using unsterilized instruments such as razor blades.
Medical experts warn that FGM can lead to long-term mental and physical problems, which may include possibly fatal septic shock, haemorrhage and blood poisoning, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
Long-term effects of FGM include urinary incontinence, painful sexual intercourse and complications during and after childbirth. Both mother and foetus could die at birth; mothers who survive may go on to suffer debilitating post-natal complications.
Countries with high FGM prevalence tend to have maternal mortality ratios of 550 per 100,000 live births. In South Africa, where FGM is outlawed under the Children’s Act, maternal mortality ratio is 300 per 100,000 live births.
According to UNICEF, maternal mortality, referring to deaths due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth, has declined by 44%—from 385 deaths to 216 deaths per 100,000 live births—in the period from 1990 to 2015, for an annual rate of reduction of 2.3%. While impressive, this was less than half the 5.5% annual rate needed to achieve the three-quarters reduction in maternal mortality under the Millennium Development Goals.
Even as women's rights advocates continue to call for a total ban on the harmful practice worldwide, some Africans in the diaspora reportedly still ship their girls back home to undergo the procedure. The BBC reported in July 2015 that about 50 such girls based in the United Kingdom had been whisked to Somalia to undergo FGM.
Given its harmful effects, why is FGM still practised in Africa? The World Health Organisation (WHO) blames it on sociocultural, psychosexual, religious and hygienic beliefs, including the social pressure to conform as well as to ensure a girl’s eligibility for marriage.
Underage girls married off to adults are more exposed to gender-based violence, with studies showing that child brides are more likely to be beaten by their husbands than those who married as adults.
“The greater the age difference between girls and their husbands, the more likely they are to experience intimate partner violence,” says Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of civil society organizations fighting to end child marriage.
Worldwide, there are more than 700 million woman alive today who were married as children, with the top five countries being in Africa, according to UN Women. With 76% of its girls entering child marriages, Niger ranks first, followed by Central African Republic and Chad (both at 68%), Mali (55%) and Burkina Faso, Guinea and South Sudan (all at 52%).
Forcing children into marriages is a human rights violation, because, among other consequences, they are stripped of their right to education. UNICEF reported in 2016 that girls who attend school acquire education, marry later when they are more mature and are better equipped to improve their overall socioeconomic and emotional well-being.
“We have a crisis on our hands. The UN estimates that globally 15 million girls experience child marriage each year,” says Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, the African Union goodwill ambassador on ending child marriage in Africa.
The negative consequences of early marriages are exacerbated by a lack of access to contraception and reproductive education, says UNFPA, and child wives are more prone to complications from early pregnancy, childbirth, or sexually transmitted diseases.
Up to half of teenage pregnancies worldwide (under the age of 20) occur in sub-Saharan Africa. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia rank high on adolescent pregnancy rates, according to WHO.
The key to preventing pregnancies by underage, teenage or otherwise unprepared women is to raise awareness of the benefits of reproductive health, says the US-based Guttmacher Institute’s Center for Population Research Innovation and Dissemination. A research and policy organization for reproductive health, the center maintains that with enhanced awareness about reproductive health, unintended pregnancies could drop by up to 83%.
Further, if health services, including the distribution of contraceptives, were adequately administered, deaths from unsafe abortions could decrease by 84%, the center has found. Abortions are banned in most African countries with the exception of Cape Verde, Mozambique, South Africa and Tunisia, among a few.
Tackling the problems
As experts continue to seek ways to protect the African girl, some countries have come up with laws to protect girls from FGM and other harmful cultural practices. Twenty-four African countries, including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria, now impose stiff penalties of between six months and life imprisonment on offenders. The results have been encouraging, with many countries witnessing declining numbers.
Meanwhile, some countries are making slow but steady progress in their efforts to stamp out child marriages. For instance, in July 2016 the Gambian government declared marrying girls under the age of 18 a crime and offenders could be locked up for up to 20 years in prison. The practice is also outlawed in Tanzania.
In 2015, the UN held its first African Girl’s Summit on Ending Child Marriage. Measures to enforce making 18 the legal marriageable age and imposing penalties for offenders were discussed. As usual, participating countries made the right speeches and committed to the cause. The coming years will determine if they match words with actions.
Speaking at the recent International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, called for a “gender-equal world, where girls have choices for their future”, free from FGM and gender-based violence.