Gambia has banned child marriages with immediate effect as husbands and parents of any girl who is wed will face 20 years in prison.
But President Yahya Jammeh Of Gambia was warned the decision could spark a backlash in a country where a third of girls get married before they turn 18.
People who were aware of child marriage yet chose not to report it could face a sentence of 10 years, Jammeh added. Almost a third of women aged between 20 and 24 in Gambia were married before the age of 18, and nearly a tenth before 15, according to data from the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF). Yet a law alone will not be enough to stop girls from being married before 18, said campaign group Girls Not Brides (GNB).
The campaign group’s Ruth Koshal said: ‘It is essential to empower girls, to protect their rights and provide meaningful alternatives to marriage that are valued by communities, such as education.’
Gambia last month became the 13th nation in Africa to join the African Union’s (AU) campaign to end child marriage, which aims to raise awareness of the risks of the practice.
Early marriage deprives girls of education and opportunities and increases the risk of death or serious childbirth injuries if they have babies before their bodies are ready. Child brides are also at greater risk of domestic and sexual violence. The government should engage with local communities to try to change attitudes towards child marriage, instead of threatening families with prison sentences, said Isatou Jeng of the Gambian women’s rights organisation Girls Agenda.
“I don’t think locking parents up is the answer … it could lead to a major backlash and sabotage the ban,” she said.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) was criminalised in December, a month after Jammeh announced a ban on the practice in Gambia, where three in four women have been cut.
While many activists supported the ban, some fear it could drive the deeply entrenched practice underground, unless efforts are stepped up to get religious leaders on board.