As of last week, Gambia has outlawed child marriage with the unanimous passage of the Children Act Amendment Bill 2016. This new law aims to eliminate the practice of child marriage, in a country where the prevalence of girls getting married under the age of 18 is unacceptably high: According to UNICEF, between 2000 and 2012 nearly 40% of girls in Gambia are married by the age of 18, and 7.3% of those were married before the age of 15.
In addition to eliminating the practice, the law introduces prison sentences for men who marry underage girls, the parent of the girl, and the official who presided over the marriage. Gambia’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mama Fatima Singhateh, says that she believes child marriage compromises children’s development by leaving them with little or no education, livelihood skills, or employment opportunities.
Fifteen million girls are married before the age of 18 every year around the world. In a 2013 report, the Council on Foreign Relations outlined some of the devastating impacts child marriage (which disproportionately negatively affects girls) can have; including emotional, psychological, and physical damage, domestic violence, and health issues associated with teenage pregnancy. Girls’ physical and emotional health, schooling, and job prospects are all jeopardized when they are forced to marry as children.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Gambia’s decision was welcomed by rights groups and comes on the heels of a similar ruling in Tanzania earlier this month. This great news is just one small victory in a much larger battle: The Gambian government must now implement this law and enforce its provisions to ensure that its girls are not forced into marriage as children. And more governments around the world must take a similar stand and protect their girls against this compromising practice.