By- Aminata S. Kromah
Liberia: Youths Transforming Africa Narrative (YOTAN) with grant support from Mondu Cooperante on Friday, September 15, 2023, launched a project Title: Enabling the Next Generation of Adolescence Girls through Education (ENGAGE) in Gbarnga, Bong County to ensure the fight against child marriage through profound educational programs.
This initiative is part of Mondu Cooperante program, “The right to be a Girl”, a project working to end early and forceful child marriage around the world.
The launching brought together key stakeholders including, Youth and Women groups, the Student Community of Bong County, National and International organizations CSOs, Traditional Chiefs and Elders as well as officials of the Government of the Republic of Liberia.
Speaking during the launch of the program in GBARNGA, Bong County Gender Coordinator Joe Smith who served as chief launcher expressed excitement over the program terming it as a great opportunity for less privileged girls in the three selected Counties whose parents cannot afford to educate them resulting to girls being abused.
“As the saying goes when you educate a girl, you educate a nation. The issue of girl’s education cannot be over emphasize the traditional believe that only a boy child have the right to education are still going on in Liberia and I am appealing to YOTAN to extend this program to the fifteen (15) Counties in Liberia”.
The Bong County Gender Coordinator noted that the issue of Gender based violence that include early Marriage remains one of the Major challenges the Gender Ministry is faced with on daily basis as the practice never stops in Liberia and other parts of the world; stating that the education of girls is keen in fighting against early marriage in the country.
Smith described the program as a major boost for the Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Gender Children and Social Protection while calling on Civil Society Organizations to join the fight in educating girls and fighting against Child Marriage in Liberia.
Joe Smith however expressed thanks and appreciation on behalf of the Minister of Gender to Youths Transforming Africa Narrative (YOTAN) and Mondu Cooperante for their fast sightedness in giving hope to Adolescence in Liberia.
“This is like a dream come true for those vulnerable girls, their parents in these counties as well as the Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Gender Children and Social Protection young girls in these three (3) counties who have long been wishing to see their self in school now have the opportunity to education”.
“One aspect I love about this program is the radio show title: “Girls Hour” were girls are going to be train to speak to issues that affects them as a girl child. Child Marriage, how domestic violence affects them, the importance of educating a girl child, etc. are interesting topics those girls are going to be discussing on the radio And we must appreciate Youths Transforming Africa Narrative (YOTAN) and Mondu Cooperante for this project” Smith Said. “I want to say to YOTAN theMondu Cooperante for this project” Smith Said.
“I want to say to YOTAN, the Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Gender Children and Social Protection is grateful for this step taken to help young girls in these Counties and this project is a plus to us as a Ministry”.
Meanwhile, the Executive Director of Youths Transforming Africa Narrative (YOTAN) Donnish M. Pewee disclosed that the project will impact One Hundred and Twenty (120) vulnerable Girls directly in Rural Montserrado, Bong and Lofa Counties.
According to Pewee, the project will provide full tuition, book bags, copy book strengthen capacity of girl’s retention committees to help ensure girls remain in school as well as hosting 36 radio program title: “Girls Hour” to amplify girls voice on issues of early and forceful Child marriage.
“The project is meant to educate less fortunate girls seeking Secondary education in Bong, Lofa and rural Montserrado Counties” Pewee said.
YOTAN Executive director noted that the issue of child marriage needs the collective effects of everyone and there is a need to invest more into girl’s education and the fight against child marriage in Liberia.
Pewee also appreciated Mondu Cooperante for sponsoring the program thus calling for more support to end child marriage and help less privileged girls with their education. He said since 2019 to present, the right to be a girl program have directly impacted over 500 vulnerable girls ensure their full tuition is paid to remain in school and livelihood skill provided. “It’s good we have some of our traditional chief and elders here today to listen to us today and I believe that when they get back home, they will help spread the message about educating girls and fighting child marriage”.
“We want to appreciate our partner Mondu Cooperante for sponsoring this program and we need more support in other to reach this program in the fifteen (15) counties because there are Liberians there that need this program”. At the same time, at the official launching ceremony in Gbarnga, parents whose child or children are benefiting from the project commended YOTAN and partners for the assistance given their children in entering school this year. “YOTAN will forever be remembered for the level of positive changes brought in the lives of our children amidst these difficult times in Liberia, parents of beneficiaries mentioned during the close of the gathering”.
It can be recalled 11 January 2019 the Chairman of the National Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia, Chief Zanzan Kawor warned traditional leaders against taking underage girls as a wife or sanctioning of marriages of underage girls in their community. Chief Kawor also called on the Government of Liberia to ensure strict implementation of the Rape Law of Liberia and urged community members not to compromise statutory rape cases among themselves.
The Traditional Leaders committed themselves to ensuring that girls are given the chance to education without any form of obstruction in the name of tradition and culture. The commitment of the traditional leaders was contained in a policy document adopted and submitted to the National Legislature under the guidance and leadership of the National Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia, after series of nationwide consultative dialogue on ending teenage pregnancy.
According to Liberia demography and health survey 2019/2021 launch, marriage age 19, about 59.1 percent of girls are already Mothers; and about 14 percent of these teenage mothers are or were adolescents during their first Childbirth.
Though sex with girls less than 18 years old is classified as statutory rape by Liberia’s Rape Law, people continue to use Social and traditional norms to encourage early marriage, inter-generational sexual activity and the imposition of the bread winning role on the girl child.
There is no doubt that these factors are responsible for the high rate of teenage pregnancies and early childbirth in Liberia. According to the 2013 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey, the median age at first sexual debut for girls in Liberia is 16.2 and 18.2 for boys. By age 19, about 59.1 percent of girls are already mothers. About 14 percent of these teenage mothers are or were adolescents during their first childbirth.
“We believe [it is] a crime against the girl child such as depriving her from reaching her God defined potential by giving her hand in marriage at an early age; thereby exposing her to teenage pregnancy;” say traditional leaders from across the fifteen counties of Liberia as they signed a petition to end early marriage in Liberia.
“It is appalling to note that our tradition which we as traditional leaders are charged with the responsibility to promote and protect in a positive manner has been named [as] one of the instruments in the promotion of teenage pregnancy in Liberia.”
“We Traditional Leaders say now is the time to break the silence and condemn in entirety those things that depressingly affect our children most especially the girls by standing against any form of violence against them and their future;” they declared.
According to the Office of the High Commission on Human Rights Child marriage, or early marriage, is any marriage where at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age. Forced marriages are marriages in which one and/or both parties have not personally expressed their full and free consent to the union. A child marriage is considered to be a form of forced marriage, given that one and/or both parties have not expressed full, free and informed consent.
This is a global problem. Child brides can be found in every region of the world. Majority of the girls forced to marry at a young age live in developing countries: According to UNICEF one in three girls in developing countries are married by the age of 18, one in nine married before the age of 15. While boys are also married as children; early and forced marriages affect girls in much greater numbers.
Why early and forced marriage widely practiced?
Child marriage is a human rights violation that occurs for a number of reasons including gender discrimination, poverty, insecurity, and traditional beliefs. Some impact of early and forced marriage on its child victims are as follows:
Young mothers are more at risk of health complications. Childbirth, which is the leading cause of death among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in developing countries. Child brides are also at a bigger risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and from suffering domestic violence.
These girls tend to drop out of school at a younger age and they have little access to opportunities, such as holding a job, outside the home. When girls marry early, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty. Etc.
Existing Laws prohibiting Early and Forced Marriage in Liberia (National and International)
The Liberian Children law passed by the legislature in 2012 removed any parental exception that allowed a child above the age of 16 to marry; reinstating that a child is a human being under aged 18. This was a strong and deliberate effort taken by the Government of Liberia in the domestication of the CRC and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC),demonstrating resounding commitment to the promotion of the rights of children in Liberia, thus abolishing child marriage.
In addition, the Maputo Protocol also known as the protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, adopted in 2003, was also signed by the Government of Liberia and subsequently ratified in 2007. The Charter is geared towards the promotion of Women’s rights. The Maputo Protocol states that, no marriage shall take place without the free and fullconsent of both parties and that the minimum age of marriage for women shall be 18 years.
The African Union in 2014 launched a campaign to end child marriage in Africa. The AU campaign aims to speed up change across Africa by encouraging governments to develop strategies to raise awareness of child marriage and address its harmful impact. Specifically, it aims to: Identify the socio-economic impact of child marriage, Promote the effective implementation of AU legal and policy instruments and support policy action, Remove barriers and bottlenecks to law enforcement, Increase the capacity of non-state actors to undertake evidence-based policy advocacy. On the basis of the AU initiative, a few years later, the Government of Liberia officially launched a campaign to end early and forced marriage through the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection.
During the launch of this campaign, the government of Liberia re-committed itself to abolishing early and forced child marriage in Liberia. As a way of enhancing its treaties obligations, the Government committed itself to enact legislations aim at abolishing force and early marriage as well as supporting civil society to campaign nation-wide to educate the public on the effect of these harmful practices.
While there has been a significant gain to abolish early and forced marriage, there are still challenges within the legal framework. For example, Section 2.2 of the Domestic Relations Law of Liberia has not been repealed. This provision allows for a marriage between 16-18 years provided such marital arrangement meets the acquiescence of the parents and or guardians. In a male dominant society where marriages are arranged and imposed on children, this law serves as an opportunity for children to be forced into marriage.
In an attempt to address the gaps in the legal framework, the former President of Liberia in January 2018 issued an Executive Order in line with Liberia human rights obligations by prohibiting violence against children under the age of 18 years. The law also abhorred all harmful traditional practices including FGM against children. However, the lifespan of the Executive Oder which is one year expires in January 2019 without any sign of a legislation that will ensure sustainable protection against early and forced marriage.
III. Current Situation of Early and Forced Marriage in Liberia
Despite being prohibited by international law and national laws in Liberia, 36% of girls in Liberia are married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF State of the World’s Children, 2016 report.� The 2016 UNICEF report also rate the prevalence of early and forced marriage practice in Liberia at 32 percent.
With these strong laws both locally and internationally prohibiting early and forced marriage in Liberia, the reality is that most girls will be married by age 18, instead of having opportunity to access basic education that will enable them to read and write.
The non-existence of a massive awareness campaign to educate the public on the effect of early and forced marriage makes the actualization of these laws meaningless.Additionally, there are also difficulties in the monitoring and implementation of these laws protecting children from early and forced marriage. There is also a slow pace in the prosecution of those arrested, simply because most people believe that these acts are sanctioned by customs. These thoughts also find justification in the fact that Liberia’s dual legal system of statutory and customary laws operate inconsistently, thereby creating grey areas that make children vulnerable to harmful traditional practices including forced and early marriage and FGM.
The protections of these laws provide are very marginal. Most of the victims of these practices come from communities where opportunities are virtually non-existent. In some of the villages or counties where these young girls ‘live, they have chosen to be married by age 13 rather than to walk for eight hours to and from each day. Some face other challenges like a forceful initiation into FGM/C, which usually connotes that upon graduation from the cultural school, these young girls are ready to be married. While efforts are made by Government and international partners these practices continue incessantly despite Liberia’s human right treaties obligations.
Research shows that the Convention against the elimination of all forms of violence against Women was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly.
Liberia ratified the Convention in 1984. Convention against the elimination of all forms of violence against Women calls for the abolition of all violence against women. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child defines a child as anyone below the age of 18. In its General Comment 21, CEDAW Committee ‘enjoined state parties to consider the minimum age for marriage at 18 years for both man and woman.
Convention on the Rights of Child CRC adopted in 1989 by the United Nations General assembly, came into force in 1990. It is a human rights treaty which sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children.
The Convention defines a child as any human being under the age of eighteen unless the age of maturity is attained earlier under national legislation. According to the CRC, every child has basic rights, including the right to life; children have the right to express their opinions, to their own name and identity etc.
These human rights standards are violated each time a child marriage occurs. Liberia ratified the CRC in 1993, thus agreeing to adhere to all standards set forth in the CRC. In General Comment 4, the Committee on CRC “strongly recommends that State parties review and, where necessary, reform their legislation and practice to increase the minimum age for marriage with and without parental consent to 18 years, for both girls and boys.
Youth Transforming Africa Narrative (YOTAN) is an independent non-profit civic hub of change makers committed to the promotion of civic engagement, inclusive governance, human rights, and Sustainable Development. Establish 2012, YOTAN works to address issues that shape local developments and shared challenges characterized by poor governance, social injustice, and poverty. The organization also work to address the imbalances of power to enable positive transformation of social attitudes and norms to advance gender equality, strengthen voice and capacity of citizens to unlock policy change and mobilize young people for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Africa 2063 agenda to enhance the quality of life.
YOTAN leverages civic engagement and technology to spur democratic rights consciousness to effect meaningful social change.
The organization’s mission is to Engage youth, inspire active citizenship and transform lives through impactful innovative solution that enhance good governance and equal opportunity for all.
Since 2012, YOTAN through the NED grant support, have work in Bong and Lofa to strengthen County Service Center that was once ineffective after been launched in 2017 as part of de-concentration of the decentralization program, and it begin active service delivery due to YOTAN intervention. Increase youth participation in decision making, strengthen accountability in the agriculture and health, empower citizens through civic engagement/town hall meetings with information on their role and their subsequent training on social audit and community score cards approach. As part of the project activities, YOTAN established eleven (11) social audit committees (SAC) in eleven districts to monitor service delivery at the County Service centers and districts development project, establish a multistakeholder platform and launched a development talk radio program, the only institution to help develop Lofa county development plan as a local development framework after 13 years with others 14 counties lacking none which make it difficult to build mutual accountability to sustaining local development, impact 1000 citizens and stakeholder capacity directly through training from 2015 to present, hosted over 130 dialogue meetings, debates, civic education, civic engagement, radio, print and social media engagement reaching 29000 citizens directly and 1.5 million indirectly 2015-present. Use the USAID/DAI fund to advocacy for people with participation on the county sitting with first the first time 10,000 were allotted for PWD which were later use to build their office in Bong and local service provision decentralized, use Mundo grant to help retain 5000 venerable girls in school and train 200 girls in livelihood.