The image of Africa as a continent that has suffered from high mortality and birth rates for decades— driven partly by child marriage justified in beliefs, taboos, culture, and religion—is not a caricature but a reality.
Beliefs: The importance of the human being, man or woman, is being fertile and proving this as early as possible. The need to demonstrate this leaves women, in particular, in a state of psychological terror if they fail to do so.
Taboos: Issues that cannot be talked about and cannot be changed in any way, in many cases linked to spirituality and tradition.
Culture: African roots, which teach that children are wealth, that one child is a sign of mediocrity and abortion is not an option. And, when abortion is allowed, it tends to be a morally and psychologically shattering experience for women who are denied psychological support because it is considered unnecessary. It should also be recognized that having many children is one of the enduring consequences of the slavery era.
Religion: This also plays a role in premature unions, for if a girl becomes pregnant the only option is marriage.
Such marriages do not necessarily reflect ignorance; they occur mainly because of a lack of financial resources, since contraceptive methods are expensive for the low-income people who are most vulnerable to these practices today.
Sex education is still a very sensitive issue for the African community, which from an early age imposes marriage as the overarching dream and main life goal in the case of girls, and the demonstration of virility in the case of men.
How can these paradigms be changed unless the environment that engenders such practices is changed? We need to involve the community and its leaders, because several adult practices and rituals are performed on girls after their first menstruation, which contravenes the law on the age of majority (18 years). We therefore propose addressing the underlying issue with community leaders in a negotiation to delay adult rituals among these girl children. According to culture, it is these leaders who decide whether or not girls are ready to marry and assume motherhood.
One idea is to create community centers designed on the African (local) cultural model that can transmit comfort and security during meetings and thus lower resistance to learning. This educational process would be provided for both sexes, boys and girls, men and women. The center would be able to offer psychological support to everyone involved in the process. Contraceptives would be provided to young people, along with guidance on their use, and discussion about non-use and the extent to which the chosen method can protect those who use it.
These community centers should be run by community members themselves. along with outsiders who are more closely related to health issues, such as gynecologists, psychologists, pharmacists, other persons involved in sports, translators from Portuguese into the native language, and individuals with experience who can train future volunteers. A process should be implemented to avoid exhausting the key staff, and ensure that the spirit of wanting to help remains fresh and conducive to new ideas to improve the centers’ main function. We need to blend local laws with those governing society at large (in the case of laws we want to introduce in these communities), to find a middle ground that does not create conflict with either side.
The centers would also have an academic function for researchers and teachers wishing to investigate child marriage, the causes and conditions that foster such practices in the localities concerned, and the results of such practices. The situation in the localities should also be compared to existing studies, with a view to future attempts to demystify the process in Africa—this Africa that does not know the term “pedophilia” and is so different from the West.