In a landmark ruling for women’s rights, Gambia’s President has announced that anyone marrying a girl under the age of 18 will face up to 20 years in prison. This includes the husband, parents and relatives. The question that many will now ask is whether passing legislation is enough to end such a deeply entrenched tradition. A grassroots approach to ending child marriage must accompany the legal ruling.
Approximately 30% of girls in Gambia are married before 18 (UNICEF, 2016). Child brides are more likely to be victims of sexual violence, more likely to suffer injury during birth due to underdevelopment and, importantly, marriage removes girls from education. Education is key to the empowerment and protection of women in vulnerable situations. High quality education has the potential to transform a country, socially and economically.
Imprisoning parents and relatives will not solve the ingrained problem of child marriage across many of the world’s underdeveloped countries. Passing a law may be a start, a ‘critical step forward’ as many rights groups claim, but it will continue to happen. Those who continue to allow child marriage will avoid being caught by using alternative tactics. Critically, religious leaders who are involved in the marriage face a similar sentence to both the husband and the child’s parents. Some rights groups have suggested the possibility of a backlash from local communities; if religious leaders face the same sentence as other accomplices, Gambia has a higher chance of succeeding in the campaign to end child marriage.
The President’s decision to impose 20-year prison sentences on those allowing child marriage reinforces the importance of leadership in women’s rights and development. Without President Yahya Jammeh’s individual decision, this step forward would never have taken place. Development, whether it be social, political or economic, is progressed through the combination of many factors, yet leadership is critical to this progress. More often than not, a country can lead by example and trigger a ripple effect through a region. Gambia’s success in passing legislation to tackle child marriage should set an example to all governments across Africa. It is possible to take steps forward, yet corrupt and inadequate leadership remains a major obstacle.
The key point here is ensuring Gambia’s government continues to tackle child marriage through local community projects, education programmes and enforcing the new law. A further issue that must be tackled is corruption in local governments; without adequate law enforcement, all commitment to banning child marriage will have gone to waste and girls will continue to be exploited.
Passing legislation to ban child marriage is simply not enough. Through education, persistence and the correct leadership, Gambia can ensure that the banning of child marriage will be a success.