By Sarata Jabbi
The Gambia on July the 6th has become the 13th nation in Africa to join the African Union’s campaign to end child marriage, which aims to raise awareness of the risks of the practice, as the head of state President Yahya Jammeh announced a ban on the practice during his the Eid al-fitr statement.
President Jammeh however vows to imprison anyone found guilty of the act for a minimum of 20 years jail term. “If any parent gives their girls’ hand in marriage before their 18 birthday will be jail for 20 years and the same punishment apply to the husband”, he stressed.
Responding to the new law Ms Isatou Jeng women’s right activist in the Gambia said it is important for governments to take a strong stance on child marriage, as they know that legal solution is too often seen as a silver bullet for government responses, it’s usually not backed up by resources to implement which can lead to major backlash within communities, she said.
“The Gambia’s recent announcement to ban marriages under 18 is encouraging. It is timely and a step in the right direction in fulfilling obligations owed to the children of the Gambia. However, the ban will not be an end to the campaign against the practice; the advocacy will continue and voices will be amplified within the communities to empower girls and promote education as the most powerful weapon to delay age of marriage”.
Asked what motivates her of becoming gender activist? “I consider myself a born activist and I would say my passion and commitment to stand in solidarity with women and girls by advocating for the respects and their rights started at a young age which I believe has to do with personal life experiences”.
She affirmed that campaigning to end child marriage is a passion for her, “because I know how it feels to have escaped been a child bride. As a survivor of teenage pregnancy, I was almost forced into marriage simply because I caused a shame to my family but so luckily, I am blessed with a caring and devoted mother who treasures the importance of education, and encouraged me to go back to education immediately I gave birth to my baby and today I proudly hold a degree in Political Science which might not have been achieved if I was married at the age of 16”.
I valued education because it doesn’t only safe me from child marriage but have also opened doors of opportunities for me to realize my potentials, Jeng added.
On the prevalence of child marriage, Ms Jeng said it is a huge problem in the Gambia with a prevalence rate of 46.5% according to UNICEF Multi Indicator Cluster Survey 2010, got married before they turned 18. “This is a very alarming circumstance that needs urgent actions because child marriage has devastation consequences that robs girls off their right to health, education and self-actualization”.
Lack of education and early marriage, Jeng states could expose girls to poverty and economic dependence on partners, thereby increasing their risk to face other forms of gender-based violence.
“Ending child marriage is everybody’s business and we all have a stake in it; all hands must be on deck to ensure that children enjoy their human rights as we mentor and guide them to navigate from childhood into the adult life”.
“Like any other duty bearer, parents have a very crucial role to play in the campaign to end child marriage by ensuring fulfilling their obligations to the children. They must understand that in breaking the vicious cycle of poverty, children must be allowed their right to education without any interference and the choice to choose when and whom to marry”.
Jeng concludes that there is hope for an end to child marriage in the Gambia, if all stakeholders work together with coordinated efforts and common goal in mind; that is to protect the human rights of the future generation.