The Western and Central Regional Office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently hosted an important Youth Leadership and Participation Workshop in Ghana.
The event brought together young people from the region, providing a forum for a wide-ranging discussion on novel approaches to addressing the prevalent issue of child marriage. This pivotal meeting emphasized the critical need to address and resolve the lingering issues that fuel this social calamity.
This workshop is part of the comprehensive Global Programme to End Child Marriage (GPECM), which has been carried out jointly by UNFPA and UNICEF since 2016. The final phase, Phase II, is expected to be completed by December of this year, paving the way for an anticipated Phase III, which will run from January 2024 to 2030.
The resounding call to end child marriage echoed throughout the workshop’s closing ceremony, as Minister for Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs, Hon. Stephen Asamoah Boateng, emphasized the urgency of the situation in the region, where 238 million girls have been forced married before the age of 18, ranking the region second in global child marriage prevalence.
He also said that the practice has had a significant negative impact on the health, education, and overall development of adolescents and youth.
“Today, we stand at the crossroads of change, driven by our unwavering commitment to ending child marriage in the West and Central Africa Region, as we gather for the closing ceremony of the Youth Leadership and Participation Workshop.”
“In the region, 238 million girls have been forced into marriage before the age of 18, marking our region with the unfortunate distinction of having the second-highest child marriage prevalence worldwide. This practice has cast a long shadow over the health, education, and overall development of our adolescents and youth,” Hon. Asamoah Boateng said.
With 64 percent of the West and Central African Region’s population under the age of 24, Hon. Stephen Asamoah Boateng emphasized the critical need to equip this demographic with knowledge, skills, resources, and opportunities to face the challenges that young people aged 10 to 24 faces.
He emphasised UNFPA’s global strategy, “My Body, My Life, My World,” which advocates for youth leadership and participation, emphasizing the importance of meaningful engagement in ensuring the Global Programme to End Child Marriage’s success (GPECM).
“We must acknowledge that youth participation is not only a right but also aligns with the principles of meaningful adolescent and youth engagement. Inadequate youth participation can directly impact the achievement of our GPECM targets.”
Dr. Bernadette Ssebadduka, Western and Central Regional Program Specialist for Adolescents and Youth at UNFPA, told UniversNews after the workshop that the West and Central African Region is facing a grim reality, with child marriage persisting due to deeply ingrained gender and social norms.
She estimates that the region is about 300 years away from ending this pervasive social ill, blaming its persistence on poverty, a lack of education, and societal pressures compelling young people into early marriages or teenage pregnancies.
“We have also learned that this is a violation of their rights because anyone should be able to grow up and decide whether or not to marry and to also decide a partner of their choice,” she said.
Dr. Ssebadduka emphasized the dire need for evidence-based policy formulation that integrates the voices and experiences of young people affected by child marriage.
She stressed that policy makers need to perceive young individuals as allies and partners in this struggle and underscored the importance of educating and engaging religious networks on human rights issues and reproductive health to eradicate cultural practices that harm young girls, such as female genital mutilation.
“Only someone that has gone through child marriage can really tell us the sense of urgency that we need to end child marriage,” she added.
Nelly Wiah, a vibrant participant of the workshop from Liberia, succinctly encapsulated the collective sentiment echoed by the engaged youth at the workshop.
Nelly emphasized that child marriage detrimentally affects society and stressed the need for collaborative efforts amongst youth to drive change.
Reflecting on different experiences from diverse countries in the region, she acknowledged that while child marriage might not be as prevalent in her home country, there are instances where young girls seek older partners due to financial needs.
She was resolute in her commitment to advocate for comprehensive support, be it economic, financial, or through empowerment programs, to eradicate this practice.
“During the three days of workshop, I have learnt that child marriage is harmful to our society and we the youth need to put in more effort in changing that concept especially dealing with community leaders, traditional leaders, and religious leaders. What I am taking home is that we the youth need to put in more effort, we need to come together because we are divided in negative ways, so we need to come together in order fight this idea of early child marriage.
“I have listened to different experiences from different countries and even though child marriage is not as high in our country as compared to other countries, we have situations where young girls go after older men because they need financial support. So I am going to take that back in my country and see how we can support each other either economically, financially, etc.,” she said.
As the workshop concluded, a resounding call for coordinated action and a reinvigorated approach to involve young people in policy-making and cultural change rang through the halls. The urgency was clear, and the resolve to end child marriage remained unshaken.
With the collective efforts of policymakers, communities, and young individuals themselves, there’s an unyielding commitment to sculpt a future free from the clutches of child marriage in the West and Central African Region.