Worldwide, more than 700 million women and girls, alive today, were married before their 18th birthday. Despite the progress, the figures are still alarming - 125 million African women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday, which is 17% of the global total.[1] If current trends continue, almost half of the world’s child brides in 2050 will be African.[2] African member states cannot afford to lose another generation of girls if they want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the goals of Agenda 2063.

We asked Save the Children’s African Union Advocacy Director, Doris Mpoumou to tell us about her work with the African Union to end child marriage and hold governments accountable to children.

Tell us about the recent advocacy success you’ve had concerning the ending child marriage campaign at the AU level

The African Union (AU) launched their campaign to End Child Marriage in 2015. We decided to join this campaign and ensure governments are held accountable.  Our campaign objective is to establish an accountability mechanism on ending child marriage at the African Union.

We proposed a political accountability mechanism – the AU Accountability Framework - that would bring together key stakeholders and ensure the campaign would result in lasting impact for girls across Africa. This accountability mechanism, when adopted, will (or, “if adopted would”) make sure that countries are taking necessary towards ending child marriage, and reporting on the progress they make.

To push for its adoption, we have undertaken targeted advocacy with the ambassadors of Member States, bringing in partner organisations, academia, religious leaders and girl champions.

We began this effort with Zambia as it has shown itself to be a global champion in the effort to end child marriage. We submitted a concept note, which included a set of recommendations, to the Zambian Embassy to the AU in late 2016, following which we met with the Ambassador who bought into the idea and promised to contact the President of Zambia.

Whilst we drove the idea to engage with the Zambian President, we recognised the power of working in partnerships and involved the civil society partners in the process.

The President recognised the potential impact of our proposal and issued an invitation to his peers for a side event on 31 January 2017 during the AU Summit. This side event received support at the highest levels: The current chair of the African Union - the President of Guinea, President of Chad, President of Mali, President of Namibia, and the Vice President of Gambia attended along with over 20 ambassadors, ministers of gender, social affairs and education.

We were keen to make sure that these high-level attendees registered the importance of adopting the AU Accountability Framework. Children’s voices were an essential part of that process. We brought two child marriage survivors from Zimbabwe –  one of whom had successfully petitioned the high court to change the law of the minimum age of marriage to 18 – to share their stories at this event.

The stories of the girls accompanied by a discussion on how the AU Accountability Framework will help end child marriage, led to the attendees agreeing on the set of recommendations, which formed this draft decision document. These recommendations call for African countries to keep the fight to end child marriage high on national, regional and continental agenda. It also required them to submit annual reports to the African Union. We are now awaiting the adoption of the draft decision at the AU Summit.

What are your next steps to keep pushing for commitments from the Heads of States?

We are doing two things:

  1. Meeting with other ambassadors of countries who attended the January side-event and finding allies amongst the Heads of States so they can join our push to adopt the AU Accountability Framework. We met with the ambassadors from Malawi and Senegal and asked if their Presidents would like to support and host a meeting similar to the one the Zambian President held, next year. These side events in the margins of the AU Summits every year help keep the pressure on and remind the governments that there is an urgent need to implement the agreed measures to end child marriage.
  2. At every opportunity, we are questioning and asking for updates from the Department of Social Affairs, who are leading the AU campaign to end child marriage. To give you an example, on 4 May, I made a statement at the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child 29th Session. I made the point of - where are we with the draft decision of the AU Accountability Framework, what are the next steps, what should we do at the next AU Summit to drive Heads of States to adopt it? – bringing back the conversation to adopting the AU Accountability Framework.

How have we worked with partners and other civil society organisations to make this happen?

We formed a forum that brought together 72 participants including youth activists, child marriage survivors and partner organisations such as World Vision, Plan, Girls Not Brides, Oxfam, Femnet, YWCA and others. We decided to meet every year to strategize on how we retain Head of States support for the AU Accountability Framework and share best practices and ideas. Eventually, the ambition is for this forum to lead and shape a coordinated CSO response to help monitor the implementation of the AU Accountability Framework.

What do you hope to see happen with the AU Accountability Framework?

We want to build political accountability at the highest level of decision-making to bring about lasting change in communities. I would like to see a future where community leaders have helped shift social norms and where Member States have implemented the necessary legal changes to ensure girls are protected – essentially taking concrete step and creating culture of accountability towards ending child marriage. We need a firm commitment from African member states and a resolute decision to do whatever it would take to -

1)      Ensure that the millions of girls at risk of child marriage or child brides across Africa have access to free and quality education at least until their 18th birthday.

2)      Respect and guarantee women and adolescents’ access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights

3)      Criminalize child marriage as a form of violence against children and concurrently work with community and religious leaders to transform social norms to make child marriage social unacceptable.