This edition of Africa in Fact focuses on Africa’s girls, 308 million of them under the age of 18, far too many of whom find themselves at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to accessing health, education, and the other tools that offer the promise of a better life. And while poverty remains a constant factor in the marginalisation of Africa’s girls, the challenges that they face are too often compounded by the mere fact that they were born female.
So, while economic deprivation is not unique to girls, not only in Africa but across the globe, there are also multiple factors, some of them culturally complex and well-intentioned, that marginalise them and exclude them from accessing the opportunities available to their brothers – and that offer a lifeline out of poverty.
The challenges specific to the girl child include lack of access to education purely due to gender, a heavy burden of domestic labour, also often due to gender, early and child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced labour outside the home, trafficking, and transactional sex. Across Africa, impoverished adolescent girls are also disadvantaged – including being forced out of education – by the taboos surrounding menstruation and lack of access to basic sanitary products and facilities.
This is not to imply that African governments – or the African Union – do not recognise the importance of gender equality for girls. Far from it. It is 32 years since the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child was launched, while the AU’s Maputo Protocol, launched in 2003, has been an important instrument in entrenching the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural human rights of Africa’s women and girls. By way of illustration, contributor Tony Ademiluyi’s article cites several important court decisions in African countries that have used provisions of the Maputo Protocol to uphold the rights of women and girls.
However, as Graca Machel, chairperson of the international board of trustees of the Ethiopia-based, pan-African, non-profit African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) noted in a 2020 report: “I would like to acknowledge, from the outset, the achievements made over the past three decades to improve the situation of girls on the continent. Significant strides have been made in improving their access to education, enhancing their protection from abuse, exploitation, and even harmful practices such as FGM and child marriage. I also recognise efforts being made to mainstream gender issues in laws and policies. However, the facts on the ground paint a sobering picture of the situation of girls, and remind us that these efforts are simply not enough and incommensurate with the myriad of challenges they are facing.”
The extremely detailed ACPF report, titled ‘How Friendly are African Governments Towards Girls?’ paints a sobering picture of girls’ experiences on the ground – findings unfortunately echoed in the collection of articles we publish here. GGA’s data journalist Mischka Moosa interrogates the numbers and concludes that “African governments’ low investment in the betterment of girls remains a key barrier in achieving the inclusive and sustainable development, set out in both the AU’s Agenda 2063 and the UN’s SDGs 2030.” Here’s just a snapshot of what the data tells us about the lived experiences of millions of African girls:
- Three girls in 10 under the age of 18 are married.
- Women and girls account for more than 70% of human trafficking victims.
- Some 40% of girls are engaged in hazardous labour (in countries that include Burkina
Faso, Ethiopia, Chad, Benin, Ghana,
Democratic Republic of Congo, and Central African Republic (CAR).
- The 2020 ACPF report found that FGM was “almost universal in Somalia, Guinea, and Djibouti, at a prevalence rate of more than 90%” – in Egypt, Eritrea, Mali, Sierra Leone, and Sudan the rate was above 80%.
Despite efforts by the AU and individual countries, child and early marriage is still a major obstacle to girls reaching their best potential. The ACPF report says that the prevalence of child marriage is as high as 76% in some countries, including Niger. In her article for this issue, GGA researcher Monique Bennett interrogates both the reasons for child marriage and its negative consequences. “A lack of education among Nigerien girls,” she writes, “is both a cause and a consequence of child marriages.”
In Africa, menstruation is another preventable cause of school absenteeism for adolescent girls. Lack of access to affordable sanitary products and facilities at schools turns what should be a routine process into an ordeal. As contributor Josephine Chinele notes in her article, ‘The politics of menstruation’: “For most rural African girls, menstruation presents a dilemma: either attend lessons and face embarrassment, coupled with self-discrimination, or remain at home to nurse their monthly periods.” One in 10 sub-Saharan girls misses school during their period, while an Ethiopian study found that 50% of girls missed between one and four days a month due to menstruation.
While the data has an important story to tell, in this issue we have also tried to look behind the statistics and enable girls to speak for themselves. Journalist Issa Sikiti da Silva, for example, spent nights on the streets of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, where Christina (not her real name) from Uganda explained why she had run away from home: “I was treated unfairly because I was a girl,” she told him. “I worked on the farm all day under the hot sun, and nobody bothered to send me to school. When I heard that my parents were preparing to give me in marriage to an older man this year, I thought I should leave the country for good.”
Meanwhile, Sintha Chiumia writes about the emotional and physical dangers associated with the widespread practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), interviewing activists who underwent the practice themselves as children as well as a former Ugandan FGM practitioner, who is now a committed abolitionist.
We hope this edition succeeds in giving voice to the hopes and aspirations of Africa’s girl child and that the articles encourage lively debate and discussion amongst our readers.
Finally, Africa in Fact would like to thank the Telkom Foundation, the Attorney General Alliance – Africa (AGA-Africa), and Boston City Campus for their partnership in bringing this edition to fruition. It is thanks to their generous support that we are not only able to print additional copies of the publication but are also pleased to be holding a one-day hybrid conference on October 11, the UN International Day of the Girl Child.
To attend, please contact Gail at email@example.com or go to: https://event.webinarjam.com/register/768/yy6o4sqkl
Susan Russell – Editor
Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.