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The Gambia has a high rate of under-18 marriage for girls and as recent as 2016, the legal age of marriage for girls was increased to 18. This ethnographic study of the urban Muslim in The Gambia explores the causes behind and meanings of early marriage in this country. It also discusses the likelihood of the recent legislative changes to have effect on actual practice among the poor in the towns and cities of this country.  It also puts into consideration the possible long-term solutions to the issue of early marriage. This research paper also outlines the major psychological effects early marriage has on the young girls involved.


Early marriage is a growing concern in the world today, especially in Africa. The Gambia is one of the countries that practice this act. In this part of the world parents encourage the marriage of their daughters at a very young age. This is done mostly in the hopes that the marriage will benefit them both financially and socially.


Child marriage is actually a violation of human right, the right to a ‘free and full’ consent to a marriage which is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although early child marriage is not considered directly in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, child marriage is linked to other rights – such as the right to express their views freely, the right to protection from all forms of abuse, and the right to be protected from harmful traditional practices. The Pan-African Forum against the Sexual Exploitation of Children as a type of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

There are numerous reasons most cultures see absolutely nothing wrong with getting a child married early. This report will enumerate some of those reasons and also explore the steps the government took and other possible solutions to this problem. The issue of early marriage has a lot of psychological strains on the young girl.


These girls are usually subjected to physical and emotional abuse that affects them greatly in the future.


Data and valid information regarding the subject matter to which this research is based was gotten empirically and theoretically.

Empirical information was collected by interviews conducted. A total of 20 persons were interviewed, where they were asked about their opinion on the subject matter. Most of them were against the idea of child marriage and attributed it to cultural beliefs and lack of knowledge. Some statements made by the interviewees will be outlines in the main content of the report.

Also, looking at the outcome of the interviews, none of the persons interviewed -even victims and uneducated ones- were in support of child marriage in the Gambia and they expressed their sincere concerns as well.

Theoretical data was gotten from books and internet sources. I also used some past materials on researches conducted by persons on the same subject matter in different African countries. As a result, it came to my attention that The Gambia is not the only nation dealing with the issue of child marriage.


Getting most of the interviewees to speak was not exactly an easy task but most questions regarding this topic will be answered in this section. Reasons behind early marriage, its effects on the young girls, the role of the government and other possible solutions to early marriage will be discussed.

Why Early Marriage?

·       Culture

 Many of the individuals (both male and female) that were interviewed referred to “culture” as the reason for child marriage. Early marriage is a traditional practice that in many places happens simply because it has happened for generations. For some of those girls, when they begin their menstruation, they become women in the eyes of the community. Marriage is therefore the next step towards giving a girl her status as a wife and mother.


These cultural practices often go unquestioned because they have been part of a community’s life and identity for a very long time. But as Graça Machel, widow of Nelson Mandela, says, traditions are made by people – and people can unmake them.

·       Poverty

More than half of girls from the poorest families in the developing world are married as children. Where poverty is acute, families and sometimes girls themselves believe that marriage will be a solution to secure their future. Most of the girls interviewed were from poor backgrounds. A particular one attributed to this as a cause of her getting married in her teenage years. According to her it “took the stress off her family’s pocket”.

Giving a daughter in marriage allows parents to reduce family expenses by ensuring they have one less person to feed, clothe and educate. Families may also see investing in their son’s education as more worthwhile investment. In some cases marriage of a daughter is a way to repay debts, manage disputes, or settle social, economic and political alliances.

Also, in communities where a dowry or ‘bride price’ is paid, it is often welcome income for poor families; in those where the bride’s family pays the groom a dowry, they often have to pay less money if the bride is young and uneducated.

·       Insecurity

In areas where girls are at high risk of harassment and physical or sexual assault, most parents marry their daughters young because they feel it is in her best interest, often to ensure her safety.

Child marriage can increase in humanitarian crises, such as in conflict or after a natural disaster. When families face even greater hardship, they may see child marriage as a coping mechanism in the face of poverty and violence. Nine out of the ten countries with the highest child marriage rates are considered fragile states.

                             Effects Of Early Marriage On Young Girls

The loss of adolescence, the forced sexual relations, and the denial of freedom and personal development attendant to early marriage have profound psychosocial and emotional consequences. Here are some effects:

1.  Isolation

Most girls are unhappy in an imposed marriage hence they become very isolated. They have nobody to talk to as they are surrounded by people who endorse their situation.


The elders usually show lack of interest in the traumas suffered by young girls in this regard. They believe that with time they will get used to their situation. When these girls run home to their parents, they are beaten and sent back to their husbands. Thus, distress is generally endured in silence.

In some other cases, the girls run away from their husbands’ houses and do not go back to their parents. Instead, the run to other towns or cities where mostly end up engaging in prostitution to survive. This does not solve any problem as it is simply resulting to another issue. A young lady I spoke to said she ran away from home at the age of 15 because her parents wanted to get her marries to a man in his fifties and she wouldn’t have it. Instead she came to the city and has settled for a life with white older men for money. According to her, she is comfortable, lives a well, eats good food, is free and can do whatever she wants. She also stated that she has no interest in getting married ever because there was no point accepting the bondage she ran away from. She is 27 now and her family does not know of her whereabouts. According to her, she is fine with it because she has her freedom.

2.  Illiteracy

The majority of the child wives have never gone to school, of left school before completing a full course of primary education, making them entirely dependent on their husbands in practical aspects of everyday life.


These girls are denied of personal development and education as it is expected that the husband provides for the girl. Early marriage inevitably denies children of school age their right to the education they need for their personal development, their preparation for adulthood, and their effective contribution to the future well-being of their family and society. The married girls who would like to continue schooling may be both practically and legally excluded from doing so. In some cases, some girls are withdrawn from school to enter into a marriage.

3.  Adolescent Health and Reproduction

They are prone to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STD). The over-riding desire to be a good wife in the eyes of family and husband prevents the child wife from negotiating for safer sex practices; thus exposing her to risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In the case of girls married before puberty, the normal understanding between families is that there will be no sexual intercourse until first menstruation. There are many cases of forced intercourse by much older, and physically fully developed husbands with wives as young as eight reported in West Africa.


Pain and trauma are enhanced where girls have undergone some form of Female Genital mutilation, especially where this has been undertaken recently, and especially in the case of infibulations which is designed to make penetration difficult. Their health is put at great risk and some of them even die. Most of these girls have under-developed pelvises which makes child bearing very dangerous for them and when brought to the hospitals, their husbands refuse to let them have it safer by surgeries, which could leave these girls for dead.

4.  Abuse

Physical, sexual and emotional abuse is a very paramount part of being married off early. Out of fear of her parents and the social stigma as well as the poverty associated with being single; many child wives are compelled to remain in a loveless and violent marriage. These girls are denied of their right to grow up as most of them that have kids have to become responsible for them, and we are left with a case where children have children and children raise children. This messes up the emotions of the girl as she might see her mates at school or playing and she cannot get involved because of the fear of being either sexually or physically abused. The trauma of living in fear is very dreadful. A beautiful young married girl I spoke to also lives with this predicament but she refuses to admit it. While speaking to her, although reluctant, she kept hammering on the fact that she couldn’t be seen talking to strangers as it would land her in big trouble.

                             The Role Of The Government

The government of the Gambia has indeed put in place certain laws to this effect. In 2016, The Gambia’s president at that time, President Yahya Jammeh announced that child marriage below 18 years will be illegal in the country. Making Gambia the latest country to decisively outlaw child marriage

The President declared that the penalty for child marriage would be up to 20 years imprisonment for both the husband and the parents of the girl being married.  This was a very encouraging move for the country which should have been done a while back. Indeed, the Gambian government’s decision in the mobilization of the political will needed to end child marriage for good is a critical step. The leaders must ensure the law leads to real social change.

              Possible Long-Term Solutions

1.  Empower girls with information, skills and good support networks

In many countries where child marriage is widespread, girls are often seen as economic burdens.


Girls in households where boys are favored often have low self-esteem and little confidence. An empowerment program for young girls is key to preventing early marriages by improving their self-efficacy. This can be achieved by informing girls of their basic human rights, their legal right to refuse a marriage, and education programs on health and sex education. Also, they can be offered opportunities to gain skills and education, providing support networks and creating ‘safe spaces’ where girls can gather and meet outside the home, can help them to assert their right to choose when they marry.

2.  Female education

According to valid studies it is more likely that a girl who marries as a child will come from a society where education for girls is not valued. She will probably be illiterate and will have little to no understanding of her human rights. Girls having access to both primary and secondary education will improve their chances of access to employment and a means of sustaining themselves and then in turn their families. It is important to reach out to societies and help challenge traditional and discriminatory views on access to education. For instance, Tostan, a woman’s human rights non-profit based in Senegal, is an inspirational example of an organization that has outreach programs which educate community elders and lawmakers about the importance of educating young girls. Female education should be the priority of the government.

3.  Educate and rally parents and members of the community

Some parents from very traditional communities believe that child marriage is a way of protecting their female child that is, providing for her economically so she will be taken care of, shielding her from harassment and sexual violence before she reaches adolescence, and preventing premarital sex which is still taboo in many countries. Unfortunately, families often do not know the detrimental effects of early child marriages. Pregnancy at a very tender age can lead to many complications as a girl’s body will not be ready for childbirth. Education will benefit such parents on the very harmful effects of forced early childhood marriage.


Meetings, public campaigns or public announcements can be put in place to this effect.

4.  Provide economic support to the girls and their families

Poverty that is inter-generational is often the most common reason given for forcing girls into early marriage. Parents may know about the harmful effects of child marriage, but may be compelled to marry off their daughters. Some believe that the dowry payment from the marriage of an older sister might be essential in ensuring the survival of younger children and the whole family. Providing economic support to families may be a way of assisting parents who do not want their daughters to get married early. Prong a girl or her family with an incentive, such as a loan, or an opportunity to learn an income generating skill can yield immediate economic relief for struggling families. Daughters with skills can earn for their family and save their family from poverty even when avoiding marriage.

5.  Encourage supportive laws and policies

One of the most powerful tools that anti-child marriage organizations and women’s rights advocates have been campaigning for is to make child marriage illegal by raising the legal age of marriage. These laws have been put in place here in The Gambia. It is now our duty to support this legislation passed by participating in community campaigning activities such as petitions and demonstrations. In cases where the legislation is already in place but still facing trouble gaining traction over entrenched traditions, you can help prevent child marriage by notifying the relevant authorities or agencies about any child marriages being facilitated.


This research indicates that not all girls have equal access to schooling due to hidden costs in children’s education such as extra fees, transportation costs, uniforms and books. For those girls whose parents can afford to send them to school and in some cases for girls who do well in school, education is perceived among interviewees to delay marriage. However, the hidden costs of schooling are understood to be an indirect cause of early marriage when poor families cannot pay for a daughter’s continued education and see no other alternatives for her subsistence.

Also, some girls go ahead to marry early to alleviate financial burdens on their parents, especially if the husband has resources that can benefit the bride's family.    Another major conclusion we draw is that adolescent girls in the areas we studied are increasingly  sexually active which  is a  new problem:  what can parents  do with this cohort of girls whom the law says cannot be married but who risk pregnancy outside marriage, causing increased financial burdens for parents in poverty? As Muslims, parents are seen to be responsible for their children's behavior in the eyes of God and therefore may feel that a girl engaging in premarital sex should be wed.


In The Gambia, going back to school later after childbirth is difficult because of childcare responsibilities and/the need to earn income. 

As long as girls and their families see the most available option for a girl's economic support to be early marriage with boys or men whose earning opportunities are greater than women's, the practice of early marriage is unlikely to decline among the urban poor.

Finally, I believe that marriage should be a thing of choice and support. A girl should be allowed to chose who she wants to marry, when she wants to marry and should also receive support from her family members. If this can become a norm, we can be one step closer to making the world a better place.





4· Gambia outlaws child marriage ‘as from today’, Global Citizen, july 2016

5·  Causes and Motives of Early Marriage in The Gambia and Tanzania Is New Legislation Enough? (PDF      Download Available). Available from:       [accessed Mar 25 2018]..

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