The Overhaul of Harmful Practices – Child Marriage in Eritrea
November 21, 2013
In “Child Marriage: Health and Rights – A Quick Note,”[i] I introduced several stark challenges that child or adolescent marriage (denoted as under 18 years of age, hereafter referred to as child marriage) poses for positive health outcomes and the realization of human rights. Additionally, I suggested that successfully combating child marriage requires a multifaceted approach involving: strong, clear legislation and effective enforcement, as well as a transformation of inegalitarian, patriarchal norms via advocacy initiatives, community programs, public health education, and the participation of all segments of society. In this article, I outline several measures taken by Eritrea to eliminate child marriage.
Like many other developing countries throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, child marriage in Eritrea is rooted in the country’s historical, cultural traditions. Viewed as a sacred societal institution, marriage was an integral component of the society’s patriarchal system. Although specific rules of marriage (dowry, familial arrangements, etc.) varied slightly amongst the various ethno-linguistic groups, an underlying common feature was that girls were married at an early age.
Eritrea’s efforts to eliminate child marriage date back to the days of the country’s long independence struggle. During that period, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) – which administered large swathes of what was then Ethiopia – not only sought national independence, but also a drastic societal transformation. Importantly, part of the latter agenda – focusing on introducing egalitarian, popular democratic principles – were women’s issues, including traditional marriage practices.
Notably, the EPLF introduced marriage legislation that abolished forced marriages, child marriages, and dowries.[ii] These measures were renewed when Eritrea eventually won independence (de facto 1991, de jure 1993), through the implementation of Article 581 of the Transitional Civil Code of Eritrea (amended by Article 46 of Proclamation 1/1991); specifically, it states that “no contract of marriage shall be valid if either of the parties is under eighteen years of age.”[iii] In addition, strong enforcement mechanisms, including stiff penalties for physical and sexual abuse of children, were put in place.
While legislation represents a key component in combating child marriage, the international consensus is that it is insufficient. Eliminating the practice requires a multifaceted approach, incorporating a range of measures. Critically, countries must confront traditional sociocultural norms that are often closely intertwined with systems of patriarchy and inequality. Eritrea’s efforts in this regard have, according to the African Development Bank, “gone a long way towards achieving gender equality.”[iv]
To begin, Eritrea has ratified several relevant international human rights instruments, including:
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child (signed 20 December, 1993; ratified 3 August 1994);[v] and
- The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (acceded 5 September 1995).[vi]
Further, Eritrea has: remained committed to implementing the Beijing Platform for Action;[vii] formulated a National Gender Policy and Action Plan; devised national development policies, such as the Macro Policy and the Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Program; and forwarded several legal proclamations, such as those for Land and Labour Reform.[viii]
Regarding child marriage, these measures have helped to initiate broad societal behavioral changes and supported improvements in the standing and role of women and girls in society. As well, with child marriage being inextricably linked with poverty,[ix] the measures are significant since they encourage the economic empowerment of females.
Successful child marriage interventions also require engaging communities (particularly in rural areas) and mobilizing grassroots efforts in order to increase understanding of harmful effects, influence behavioral changes, and discourage the practice. Significantly, these strategies have been central within work conducted by the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW), the largest NGO in Eritrea.[x]
Founded during the liberation struggle as the women’s wing of the EPLF, NUEW has conducted a range of community programs to educate families and communities on the dangers of child marriage[xi] (and other harmful practices).[xii] As well, NUEW has, often in collaboration with government ministries and international development partners,[xiii] promoted awareness,[xiv] employment, workshops, seminars, training, and life skills programs[xv] (suggested as helpful to delaying marriage).[xvi]
Last, female education is key in child marriage interventions. According to the International Center for Research on Women,
“increasing female access to education is crucial in combating child marriage. Girls with eight or more years of schooling are less likely to marry early than girls with zero to three years of education. Women are more likely to control their own destinies and effect change in their communities when they have higher levels of education.”[xvii]
For Eritrea, education – especially the expansion of educational opportunities for females – has been a national priority. Since independence, national gender disparities in enrollment and literacy have improved significantly. Further, the 2013-2017 Eritrea National Education Expansion Development Report notes that:
“female gender parity with males will be achieved in elementary and middle education by 2015/16, and in secondary education by 2016,” and that “in technical and vocational education and training the enrollment of girls has continued to grow.”[xviii]
Other gender-specific educational efforts include: revising curricula and teaching materials to make them gender sensitive; and improving accessibility by increasing the number of female teachers and opening boarding schools for girls in remote areas.
Though Eritrea’s multifaceted approach has witnessed a reduction in child marriage (and also teenage child bearing),[xix] Eritrea acknowledges that the practice “continues to be a challenge.”[xx] Consequently, the country must remain committed to enforcing marital laws, continue to expand and improve education (specifically for females), while supporting the overhaul of harmful, patriarchal social norms.
[ii] Bystydzienski, J. and J. Sekhon. 1999. Democratization and Women’s Grassroots Movements. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
[xix] Woldemicael, G. 2005. “Teenage Childbearing and Child Health in Eritrea.” Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. 1-25.