A new Sexual Intercourse Related Crimes Bill is under consideration in the Somali parliament.
According to news reports, the bill would allow child marriage as soon as a girl’s sexual organs mature. It would also allow a forcible marriage as long as the girl’s parents agree.
In this 21st century and age of #MeToo, this bill is regressive and repressive of the fundamental rights of women. If it is legislated, it will undermine the struggle for a gender-balanced society in Africa.
Child brides are common in Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40% of women were married as children, as African countries account for 15 out of the 20 with the highest rates of child marriage.
In Somalia, more than 45% of young women were married or “in union” before age 18, according to a UN analysis covering 2014 and 2015. It is projected that, if not curbed, by 2050, Africa will overtake South Asia as the region with the highest number of child brides.
This is worrisome considering that child marriage doesn’t occur without several negative effects on the victims. It affects their educational aspirations and limits their chances of being equipped to secure life-changing opportunities, hence the likelihood of a future in poverty. More dangerously, it affects the health of victims, because it leads to early and multiple childbirths that come with varying complications, such as maternal and infant mortality, and obstetric fistulas.
Simply, child marriage hampers the achievement of many of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). Even the African Union, in its Agenda 2063 – the 50-year action plan for development – recognises that child marriage is a major impediment to regional development and prosperity.
The legalisation of child marriage also puts more girls at risk of sexual violation and domestic abuse and, further, it makes these crimes almost impossible to report and punish.
Already, child marriage still goes on in countries where the age of consent has been raised to eighteen. For instance, it was recently reported that a 12-year-old Kenyan girl was married to two men within a month, despite the Kenyan law that forbids the marriage of anybody under the age of eighteen. What then is the hope of girls in countries where child marriage is legalised?
This new Somali bill is therefore faulty. The government is supposed to provide regulatory support and ensure enforcement in order to deter violence against women and protect their freedom. But the opposite is the case with this bill.
Girls have the right to lead good lives
If the Somali and other African governments are keen on achieving the SDGs and improving the quality of life of their people, eradicating inequality and gender-based violence should be a priority.
This bill should be reversed and the Somali government should instead work with non-governmental organisations to sensitise the public, especially parents with little or no formal education, and even members of the government on the dangers of child marriage. Most importantly, the government should ensure that strict measures are taken to curtail violence against women and girls.
Whyte is a writing fellow at African Liberty with an interest in development. He is a Future News Worldwide 2019 Fellow with British Council Scotland and a 2020 Fellow of Climate Tracker. He can be reached on Twitter via @_DanWhyte