Forgotten youth? Why we need young people to help us end child marriage

Saturday, 12 August 2017 08:45 GMT

Young Turkana tribeswomen sing in a village near Baragoy, Kenya August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

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We need to go beyond seeing youth as victims and acknowledge that they are holders of rights, with a lot to contribute

One of my earliest memories is of my older sister coming home from school with a trophy she had won. She was the most talented athlete in our town, and was always bringing home awards. Everyone used to say she’d grow up to be one of Uganda’s most famous sports stars.

My sister was just 12 years old when she fell pregnant for the first time. She never went back to athletics after that. Instead, she dropped out of school, and by the time she was 19 she had given birth to three children.

Her story isn’t unique. Each year, 15 million girls around the world are married before the age of 18, with many being subjected to forced sex. That’s one girl every two seconds whose dreams of becoming an athlete, a doctor or a teacher are brought to an abrupt end. As well as exposing them to physical and sexual violence, child marriage propels girls into adulthood far too quickly, robbing them of their rights to health and education.

But while young people are affected by child marriage, they are also the key to ending it. With 1.8 billion young people worldwide, we currently have the largest youth generation in history. In many countries where child marriage is common, such as Uganda, which has the youngest population in the world, young people under the age of 24 make up more than half of the population. These young people are often left out of discussions about ending child marriage, but if we can mobilise this young population, we have the potential for change on an enormous scale.

It’s not just a case of strength in numbers. Young advocates also bring creativity and credibility to the table: they often make more daring policy demands, think outside the box, and are able to open up previously closed policy spaces with influential decision makers. Malawi’s adoption of a law increasing the age of marriage to 18 is a great example: adolescents convinced their community leaders to adopt by-laws on child marriage, eventually taking their struggle all the way to Parliament.

Young people can also break the generational cycle of child marriage. We know that when girls are able to stay out of marriage, and stay in school, they are likely to have fewer children and those children will most likely also not marry early. Girls who have avoided or escaped child marriage can also be powerful role models for girls in their communities, inspiring them to stand up for their rights and helping them envision a different future for themselves.

But empowering girls is only part of the solution. Young men like me have an important role to play in ending the injustices that have prevented our mothers, our sisters and our communities from achieving their potential. That’s why I founded the Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum, a youth-led organisation that works to end gender based violence, child marriage and adolescent pregnancy. We know that educating young men and boys to understand that girls’ rights are human rights is critical if we are to put an end to practices that have gone unchallenged for generations.

Youth engagement is by no means the answer to the problem. However, when we value, invest in and meaningfully engage young people, they can become the champions we need to influence parents, communities and policy makers. To do this, we need to go beyond seeing youth as victims, or beneficiaries of programmes, and acknowledge that they are holders of rights, with a lot to contribute to the field. By mobilising young people and encouraging a growing global movement on the issue, I am convinced that girls like my sister will all one day be able to realise their potential.

Patrick Mwesigye is the co-founder of the Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum, a Girls Not Brides member organisation which promotes the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of young people in Uganda.