NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sudan should raise the legal age of marriage from 10 years – the lowest in Africa – to 18, to comply with international child rights standards, according to a report released on Monday, which cited an overall improvement across the continent in child protection.
If a girl is married before the age of 18, her body may not be fully developed and her education will probably be cut short. She is more likely to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth, be beaten, raped or infected with HIV by her husband, abused by her in-laws and remain poor.
Her children are more likely to die before the age of one, or grow up malnourished, poor and uneducated.
In Sudan, where the Personal Status of Muslims Act of 1991 allows children - boys or girls - as young as 10 to marry, 38 percent of young women were married before the age of 18, according to a 2010 government survey. Blue Nile state had the highest rate of child marriage, with 62 percent of girls marrying before they turned 18 and 19 percent marrying before 15.
Although the minimum age of sexual consent for a child is 18, an exemption in Sudan’s penal code protects the spouse from being charged for sex within marriage to a child under 18.
GREATER CHILD PROTECTION
The African Report on Child Wellbeing 2013, produced by the Ethiopia-based African Child Policy Forum research institute, found an improvement across the continent in the number of countries acting to end child marriage.
Currently, 18 is the minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls in 33 countries - compared with only 30 countries having 18 as a minimum age of marriage for girls five years ago. Four other countries - Algeria, Lesotho, Libya, and Rwanda - have a minimum above 18 for both sexes.
In the remainder of African countries, the minimum age is either discriminatory against girls or below 18.
Girls are allowed to marry at age 15 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Seychelles, Cameroon, Niger, Swaziland, Tanzania and Malawi. For Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Zambia, it is 16, while Chad and Burkina Faso allow girls to marry at 17.
Like Sudan, Malawi is singled out as problematic for the discrepancy between the minimum ages for sex and marriage.
While Malawi law prohibits sex with a girl or boy younger than 16, the constitution allows a child aged 15 to marry. However, unlike in Sudan, there is no exemption in Malawi law to protect someone from having sex with his or her 15-year-old spouse.
“It is important that the minimum age of marriage is higher than the minimum age of sexual consent as consummation is a prerequisite for a valid marriage,” the report said.
Earlier this month, Malawi’s President Joyce Banda issued a directive ordering parliament to raise the age of marriage to 18 or 21.
The report found legal protection in general for children is improving: A total of 35 countries have enacted consolidated laws on children, up from 22 in 2007. These laws address issues like child trafficking, the right to education and the minimum age of marriage.