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AFRICA: Child Bride Symbolises Reasons Why MDGs Will be Missed

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

CAPE TOWN, Jul 13 2007 (IPS) - The woes of the child bride in many ways illustrate the conditions underlying the failure of African countries to achieve many of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The recently released United Nations report entitled ‘‘The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007’’ states that ‘‘although there have been major gains in several areas and the goals remain achievable in most African nations, even the best governed countries on the continent have not been able to make sufficient progress in reducing extreme poverty in its many forms’’.

Many of the MDGs deal directly with children and women, such as targets to reduce child mortality, maternal mortality, increasing enrolment at primary education level and promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women.

African newspapers regularly feature articles on the plight of child brides. In societies where girl children as young as ten years are married off, there is a failure to meet the MDG which makes provision for primary education for all children by 2015 (MDG 2). Young brides are taken out of school to meet the demands of their husbands.

When a young girl of 12 or 13 becomes pregnant, there is also an increased risk that she may die in childbirth or during pregnancy. Not only is her body not yet properly developed to carry a child to term, but lack of access to medical care in the rural areas further increases her chances of dying.

MDG 5 is aimed at the improvement of maternal health and reducing the maternal mortality rate by three quarters by 2015. Pregnant women of all ages are at risk, but a young girl even more so. Lack of education and early marriage draw the child bride into a spiral of poverty, addressed in MDG 1 which is the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.

According to MDG 3, gender equality and the empowerment of women should be promoted. Needless to say, a girl who marries prematurely probably has little experience of equality in a marriage and will probably not be empowered.

MDG 6 is aimed at combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. The child bride is at increased risk as she is often the third or fourth wife of a much older man. This exposes her to the HI virus and other sexually transmitted diseases. Due to her young age and lack of knowledge, she may also be more vulnerable to other diseases.

The 2007 report shows that the proportion of people living in extreme poverty is declining at a slower rate and is still at higher levels in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the developing world. The number of people in developing countries worldwide who live on less than $1 a day fell from 31,6 to 19,2 percent between 1990 and 2004.

In sub-Saharan Africa the percentage fell from 46,8 to 41,1 per cent between 1990 and 2004. This is despite the per capita income of seven countries in this region growing by more than 3,5 per cent a year between 2000 and 2005.

According to the report, ‘‘the poorest are getting a little less poor’’. Yet the greatest number of children who suffer from hunger are found in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The figures for maternal mortality exhibit the discrepancy between sub-Saharan Africa and the developed world most starkly. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in every 16 women dies during childbirth or pregnancy. In the developed world the figure is 1 in 3,800.

Preventing unplanned pregnancies could prevent around one quarter of maternal deaths, including those resulting from unsafe abortion. But only 21 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa used contraceptives in 2004. Few women in the region receive adequate antenatal care.

Improvement in women’s access to health care has been negligible in sub-Saharan Africa. The proportion of deliveries attended by skilled healthcare personnel went up from 42 to an almost equally dismal 45 percent between 1990 and 2005, while showing an overall increase from 43 to 57 percent in the developing world during the same period.

Total net enrolment ration at primary education level went up from 54 to 70 percent between 1990/1991 and 2004/2005 in sub-Saharan Africa. Again, the overall rate for developing countries is significantly better, jumping from 80 to 88 percent in the same period.

The 30 percent of children not going to school in sub-Saharan Africa translates into 72 million individuals of whom 57 percent are girls. These figures may suffer from underreporting as many children are registered but do not attend school.

In sub-Saharan Africa more children of secondary school age are attending primary school than secondary school. The report states that late enrolment puts children at a disadvantage by causing potential learning problems and lessening opportunities to advance to a higher level of education.

According to the report, progress made to achieve MDG 4 – reduction of child mortality – is slowest in sub-Saharan Africa. AIDS, malaria, war and conflict contribute to high child mortality figures.

But progress was recorded with the prevention of measles and a decline in deaths caused by the disease, thanks largely to improved immunization coverage throughout the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of children immunised between the ages of 12 and 23 months has improved from 57 to 64 percent between 1990 and 2005.

According to the report, measles vaccination campaigns have also led to other life-saving interventions such as the provision of mosquito nets to protect people against malaria; de-worming medicine; and vitamin A supplement.

Although HIV infections have decreased in the developing world, deaths from AIDS continue to rise in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the 39,5 million people who have the illness worldwide, live in this region. Africans dying annually from AIDS rose from some 200,000 in 1990 to two million in 2006. The sharing of contaminated needles in drug use has emerged as a worrying new cause of HIV infections in especially Mauritius, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania.

Globally an increasing number of married women are becoming infected with some 48 percent of people infected with HIV being women.

The report also shows that prevention measures are inefficient, that most young people do not have a comprehensive grasp of HIV and that only 11 percent of pregnant HIV-positive women in low- and middle income countries were receiving services to prevent the transmission of the virus to their newborns.

However, HIV prevalence has shown a slight decline between 2000 and 2006 in sub-Saharan Africa.

At a recent international summit in Nairobi on Women’s Leadership on HIV/AIDS organised by the Young Women’s Christian Association, World Health Organization director general Margaret Chan said that gender inequality and domestic violence are among the factors which drive the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

She pointed out that 500,000 babies are born with the virus every year and 80 percent of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.

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