A man and woman point at a chalkboard.

Africa’s Traditional Leaders Taking the Lead on Ending Child Marriage

Written by: Valerie Dagnimisom Koutou, [email protected]

Guidance for Engaging Traditional Leaders: Child marriage

When I arrived, the court of the ”Kamsaogho Naaba”,  Minister of the MOGHO NAABA, chief to the Mossi – the majority ethnic group in central Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, was already crowded with men, women and children from the capital and from other villages. Several thousand people were there, invading the chief’s court to experience the rhythm of the ‘’Nabasga’’, a customary celebration for traditional chiefs. It has always attracted large crowds and has now become a great moment to affirm ones belonging to the community, but also convey messages of commitment to certain societal causes.

The traditional woven Burkina loincloth, Faso Dan Fani, worn by almost all of the guests illustrated their desire to assert their origins/ethnic identity/cultural heritage. Like everyone else, I too wore a traditional Burkina woven loincloth dress; and strongly believed that my presence at this traditional feast at the invitation of the chief, Kamsaohgo Naaba, was proof that the power of traditional leaders will advance the societal cause I am fighting for: Protecting young girls from child marriage and giving them a chance to go to school and achieve their full potential. 

Child marriage in Africa

Despite efforts to end child marriage globally, an estimated 12 million girls are still married each year. West and Central Africa home to six of the top 10 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world with a prevalence rate of 41 percent in 2018.  

This year, Save the Children Pan-African girls report published In October estimates that between 391,000 and 608,000 girls in Africa could be newly at risk to child marriage because of COVID19.

Child marriage is often rationalized by traditional reasons across Africa. However, the practice is rooted in unequal gender and social norms as well as discriminatory cultural traditions. This makes attaining the main objectives of Sustainable Development Goal 5, ending child marriage in all parts of the world, a complex task that requires cooperation from all stakeholders, mostly traditional leaders. They are well indicated to address the issue of child marriage because they influence social norms more than political leaders. Moreover, when political leaders change, traditional structures remain from generation to generation.

Engaged Leaders bring changes

Save the Children has worked in remote areas and with communities to show traditional leaders about the impacts child marriage has on girls' health, their education and on an entire community's wellbeing. 

By equipping traditional leaders with a clear understanding of the issues, many wish to collaborate with us to end child marriage in their community. “without the support of Save the Children and the social workers who advised my parents and community leaders about the harmful effects of child marriage, I would have leave school and get married, said AIisha, a 17-yea-old girl in Burkina Faso.

The Kamsaogho Naba himself has created a local NGO to protect children in his community from child marriage, child labor, and female genital mutilation, using football as a way to allow children to enjoy their childhood.

In Niger, where 76% of girls are married before the age of 18, Mahamadou Abdou, Founder of the Coranic School Nour Islam. Tessaoua has become a prominent figure in his community where he devotes his time to educating girls despite what others in his community believe. His goal is to modify the radical thoughts of his neighbors on girls' education.

"I call on the government to encourage girls to stay in school like boys, promote equal opportunities at school which discourage many parents from enrolling their children,” he said. 

"Girls represent the mother of humanity which is why we prioritize the quality of education for young girls. Knowledge is a gift and the community cannot develop by only educating girls without the contribution of women," Abdou concluded.

Many others are even actively involved with organizations that work to address different girls' issues at a grassroots level.

Tradition, culture as well as religion are all deeply entrenched in society as the main source of inspiration and people rely on scriptural guidance which also influences the day-to-day decisions about girls. Faith and traditional leaders are both positioned as moral voices that can approve or disapprove of marriage.

Steps to better engaged with Traditional Leaders

Working with traditional leaders to end child marriage is essential, but still needs to be strengthened. To support organizations willing to engage traditional leaders, we have been designing a guide on the steps needed to succeed in such kind of engagement:

  • Identify traditional leaders and study their position on child marriage. The idea is to listen to their thoughts on child marriage and the possible reasons for supporting the practice. This then allows the organization to find the right angle to get important messages across. It is important to take advantage of the emergence of new types of traditional leaders, as many of them are open to change.
  • Hold training sessions with traditional leaders to raise awareness of the harmful effects of child marriage to discuss them and give them tools to raise awareness in their own communities.
  • Organize discussions between traditional leaders and parents to solicit opinions and provide space for these groups to exchange views on their respective positions. It would also identify alternatives when practitioners state their reasons.
  • Focus on the harmful effects of child marriage to convince traditional or customary leaders. It is necessary to emphasize every harmful effect so that leaders understand the dangers to which children are exposed.
  • Following the model of the previous summits organized, create a national and regional platform for traditional leaders to exchange experiences. This would involve sharing information, lessons learned, best practices, challenges and practical solutions. Leaders could inspire each other and identify initiatives to collaborate on.
  • Use key moments of community tradition such as “Nabasga” that I attended to get messages out to boys and girls. Also, encourage traditional leaders to address the theme of child marriage at large community meetings.
  • Create whistle-blowing committees in which people could denounce child or future marriages.
  • Support traditional leadership initiatives around ending child marriage and convince them to put in place regulations and protection spaces that would deter community members from engaging in this practice.


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