By Emma Batha
CASABLANCA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Child marriage should be seen as a form of modern slavery and is tantamount to sanctioning child rape, the African Union's goodwill ambassador said at a conference on ending the practice.
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda said child marriage inflicted life-long trauma on many girls and far more must be done to address its psychosocial impact.
"(With child marriage) we are sanctioning rape, we are sanctioning abduction, we are sanctioning a modern form of slavery, it's trafficking, it's forced labour," said Gumbonzvanda, a human rights lawyer whose mother and sister were both wed as children in her native Zimbabwe.
"It's a huge bundle of violations, and the moment we just call it 'marriage', it is like we are giving it a blessing and acceptability."
Worldwide around 15 million girls are married off every year, depriving them of education and opportunities, jeopardising their health and increasing the risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.
Children born to girl mothers tend to be less healthy, less educated and poorer. Daughters often grow up to become child brides themselves, perpetuating cycles of abuse and poverty.
MARRIED AND RAPED
Although there has been a global push to prevent child marriage, Gumbonzvanda said no one is helping the 39,000 underage girls still married off every day.
Speaking on the sidelines of an international conference in the Moroccan city Casablanca, she said girls married as children are often highly traumatised, but this is an aspect that has so far been ignored.
"We're talking about a girl whose first sexual encounter is with a stranger, getting naked with somebody who's much older... and being raped and raped and raped."
They cannot turn to their families because it is their families who have married them off, yet there is no other help. Gumbonzvanda called for support networks for teenage mothers and efforts to help them re-enter the education system.
She said her own commitment to ending child marriage came from her mother, who left school to marry at 15.
"All the time we were growing up she referred to how she missed out on education, how she wanted to be something else," she said.
"She would still dream, even as an old grandmother, about the life she felt she should have had. It pushed her to work extra hard for us to remain in school. The work I do is making the personal political."
Gumbonzvanda said child marriage does not just impact individual girls, but also hampers development in their communities and countries. Keeping girls in school and delaying marriage is crucial for Africa's development, she said.
The African Union launched a campaign a year ago to end child marriage, focusing on 10 high prevalence countries.
Gumbonzvanda said the campaign is clear recognition that the continent's future prosperity is linked to eradicating the practice.
"When we end child marriage we ... are breaking the cycle of poverty," she said.
Several countries have recently launched national campaigns, but she said more needs to be done in conflict-affected countries such as Central African Republic, Mali and South Sudan.
Nearly 300 delegates representing 61 countries are attending the three-day conference in Casablanca.