As the populations of many African countries boom and governments struggle to implement effective social policies, child marriage is expected to increase dramatically across much of the continent over the next 35 years according to a new UNICEF report.
The report, released at the start of the African Union Girls Summit in Zambia on Thursday, predicts that without significant shifts in policy, the number of child brides in Africa will increase from 125 million to 310 million by 2050.
Researchers found that while some countries had made improvements in reducing the rates of child marriage, others seemed to be losing their grip on the issue. Progress seems to be follow economic development, with richer populations greatly reducing the number of child marriages while among poorer populations the prevalence of the practice has remained largely unchanged or increased.
“From the 1990s to today, the rates have decreased but those decreases aren’t enough to offset the increased population,” said Claudia Cappa, a statistics specialist at UNICEF and the author of the report.
“It’s very difficult to promote change in something that’s so structural. The data says it very clearly: If we want to reduce the number of women affected by child marriage what we’re doing is not sufficient. We’re fighting against demographics.”
The rate of women married before they turned 18 dropped from 44 to 34 percent from 1990 to today, but because the population of Africa is rapidly growing, U.N., political, and non-profit leaders warn that more drastic action is needed to contain the rise.
Poverty is the best predictor of whether women age 20 to 24 today had been married before they were 18. The rate of child marriage has been cut in half for the richest 20 percent of Africans, while it’s remained virtually unchanged among the poorest. In Western, Eastern, and Southern African nations, the rates of child marriage among the poorest have increased.
Girls from rural areas, who tend to be poorer than those from urban areas, were also much more likely to be married as children. Whether a country has been in conflict also seemed to be a contributing factor.
“Parents often see child marriage as a protection mechanism during times of war,” said Cappa. “It can be a way of guaranteeing their physical or economic security.”
Without further intervention, UNICEF expects child marriages to remain at the same rate through 2050, meaning 310 million girls would be married by the time they are 18.
If the same rate of decline from the 1990s to today continues, 215 million girls would be married, and in a best-case-scenario of accelerated progress, UNICEF predicts 150 million girls would be married before 18 in 2050.
There have been efforts to end the practice. In May, the African Union launched a campaign called End Child Marriage Now that aims to provide girls across the continent better access to education and reproductive health services. It also promises to better enforce laws prohibiting child marriage.
The African Union did not respond to Al Jazeera America's calls for comment.
But researchers still think more needs to be done.
“These are social and cultural traditions that have been ingrained for so long that it’s not going to change overnight,” Mayke Huijbregts, the chief of child protection at UNICEF’s Mozambique headquarters said.
The problem, according to some experts, is that while governments have finally addressed the issue, there aren’t enough resources to give programs a chance to succeed.
“Countries can have good laws, a national action plan, and make promises, but the problem is implementation,” said Agnes Odhiambo, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Women’s Rights Division who is based in Nairobi.
“We need real accountability from the government.”
Another problem, according to Odhiambo, is that even as child marriage becomes a more pressing topic for governments, the underlying factors that encourage child marriage are rarely discussed.
“In Africa we’re very fast to talk about solutions, but we won’t talk about sexual education and health. We won’t talk about the role of religion. We don’t want to talk about the controversial things that at the end of the day put millions of girls at risk,” she said. “No one wants to rock the boat too much.”