Globally, 15 million girls marry before the age of 18 every year. This breakdown is 41,000 girls getting married every day; 28 every minute and a girl getting married every two seconds.
In sub-Saharan Africa, it is projected that the number of child brides could double by 2050. On the average, one out of four girls in Ghana is married before their 18th birthday.
These statistics from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Ghana’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) show the worrying trends of child marriage across the world, which has necessitated the global call for action to eliminate child marriage by 2030.
Ghana, with the support of UNICEF, launched its campaign to end child marriage in February 2016 and these efforts are sparking interesting debates across the country. One such debate is the issue of disparity between the age of consent to sex and the legal age for marriage.
The age of consent to sex and the legal age for marriage in Ghana are quite similar to international ranges.
The age of consent to sex of 16 and the legal age for marriage in Ghana, which is 18 years, are quite similar to international ranges. Though there are no international guidelines on the age of consent, it often ranges from age 13 to 18. It is very common to find the age of consent lower than the legal age for marriage across countries.
The age for marriage on the other hand averages at 18 for most of the world and is guided by international conventions such as the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. The legal age for marriage in Ghana is enshrined in the 1998 Children’s Act and the Criminal Procedure Code (Act 30), setting it at 18 years for all forms of marriages.
Prior to setting the current binding statutory standard, there were varied standards of appropriate age-determined customary laws (when girls reach puberty), the marriage ordinance and religious laws.
The notion is that the gap of two years between the age of consent and the legal age for marriage encourages teenage pregnancy, which is a key driver of child marriage.
The legal age for marriage in Ghana is enshrined in the 1998 Children’s Act and the Criminal Procedure Code (Act 30), setting it at 18 years for all forms of marriages.
The main proponents for raising the age of consent to sex argue that the Children’s Act provides that a child is someone below the age of 18. From this, it is derived that a 16-year-old is still a child and may not know the implications of having sex, and protecting himself or herself. It is believed that when the child gets pregnant, there are little options available to her, as she cannot legally marry at that age.
Others argue that since the age of consent is at 16, sexual abuse of the child at that age is treated as a misdemeanour, serving as little deterrent for men to refrain from it.
A popular example of this was the controversy between a proprietor of a school and a student, that was brought before the Gender court in 2009. The proprietor impregnated the 16-year-old student and later married her. The girl was reported to have consented to the act, making it legal.
The man was prosecuted on charges of compulsion of marriage of a teenager. The case attracted interest nationally, as human rights and gender activists were determined to use it as a test case.
People were appalled that marrying someone before the age of 18 is considered a less serious offence than defilement; child marriage is a misdemeanour which carries a punishment of between one and three years in jail. However, since her hand had already been given in marriage to the proprietor, she didn’t cooperate with the prosecution and the case was eventually dropped.
This sums up a lot of the experiences in prosecuting child marriage in Ghana, involving people who are within the age of consent.
Age of consent
When the age of consent is raised, sex below 18 years will be treated as defilement which attracts a minimum of seven years and a maximum of 25 years jail sentence. They believe this will be a great disincentive between adults and children, considerably reducing the incidence of child marriage.
In addition, some are of the view that raising the age of consent is in the best interest of the child, as required by law. They believe that there is no point in saying that a person can have sex at 16 and not be ready for the consequences, and also that at 18, a person is financially, mentally and emotionally better off than a 16-year-old in terms of marriage.
If every child at that age is having sex, our society will be worse off than it is. The law should encourage them to do the right thing, with the few who fall outside the law being given the necessary skills to help them reform.
These arguments notwithstanding, there are some who strongly believe that there is nothing wrong with the laws as they stand now. They assert that the age of consent at 16 is in line with international practices and is in the best interest of the child.
At 16, it is expected that a child should be mature enough to make that decision just as the constitution makes provision for the child to do light work from 15, without it being considered child labour.
Lot of reasons
They argue further that a lot of the reasons given for the need to change the laws are based on morality, tradition and culture, which are impractical for the current times.
Further, they view calls to make the age of consent to be on a par with the legal age of marriage as moral ideals which have very little practical consideration. Pushing the age of consent to 18 means that a lot of sexual activities, which will happen anyway, will be considered statutory rape, leading to excessive prosecution.
The reverse, which is to bring the age of marriage down to be on a par with the age of consent, is an impossible venture. Ghana prides itself in being the first to have signed and ratified the convention on the rights of the child, and has made so much progress in that regard that lowering the age will seem as though we were going backwards.
They assert that the way forward is to find ways to ensure that children who are sexually active do not get pregnant and be compelled to get married. As this situation is not unique to Ghana, they argue that we can learn a lot from the ways other countries have handled their situation.
This article was written by the Child Marriage Unit of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection.
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