Today, the 16th June 2017, is the Day of the African Child. Over the past two weeks, in the lead up to this day, FORWARD has been drawing needed attention to the issue of child motherhood with our crowdfunding campaign to support child mothers back to school. Child mothers are girls, under the age of 18, who become mothers at a time when they themselves are children.

This crowdfunder kicked off the Make Child Mothers Count Campaign, which is a call for policy makers to take effective measures to empower child mothers to re-enter schools.  The African Union theme for this year’s International Day focuses on “Accelerating protection, empowerment and equal opportunities for children.” In many countries of Sub Saharan Africa, early pregnancy and child motherhood is directly related to loss of education opportunities, loss of protection and the premature loss of childhood.

Child motherhood is a neglected global public health and social problem that is borne out of powerlessness, pressure, poverty and punitive policies. In many communities, societal structures and norms strip girls of their agency and decision making power, removing their ability to make free and informed choices about when to get pregnant and how many children to have. Many girls FORWARD works alongside have been pressured or coerced into sex or forced into marriage by their families or by older men because entrenched social and cultural norms dictate that their sole value and purpose is to be wives and mothers.

The 2013 UNFPA Motherhood in Childhood report declared that impoverished, poorly educated and rural girls are more likely to become pregnant before the age of 18 than their urban counterparts, meaning that those girls already facing difficult futures with little support available are those most affected, this compounds the burden on vulnerable girls already left behind in society.

Globally, there are 44 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 annually, in Africa this number rises drastically by 127% to 100 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 annually (UNFPA, 2013). National level policies and laws are often discriminatory and help create an uneven playing field for women and girls, where their rights and freedoms are not protected or upheld. For example in Tanzania the current legal age of marriage is 16 for boys, but 14 for girls with parental consent.

FORWARD’s vision is to see a world where women and girls are able to claim their rightsand live in dignity, free from all forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Child motherhood undermines a girl’s ability to exercise her right to education, health and personal autonomy. Child mothers tend to drop out of school early, and are often prevented from returning to formal education due to the social stigma they face. Sadly, without education, girls have limited opportunities to become economically independent, which in turn leaves them more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. The inability to return to school not only hinders girls’ economic potential, but it can also affect their self-esteem and social status within their own homes and in the wider community.

The African Union is now calling on states to accelerate efforts towards realising the rights of children and to prioritise socio-economic rights of children as critical to attaining the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for Children in Africa. Investing in child mothers to empower them to return to education is a critical state obligation and should help to address the numerous punitive policies and social barriers that bar child mothers from returning to education and realising their right to gender equality and empowerment.

Child mothers have been neglected for too long in the development agenda and global attention is urgently required. Existing data about the extent of this problem is patchy, and many suggest there are more than the estimated 2 million births to girls under the age of 15 annually. They often fall between the cracks of efforts to support young women and girls. Once they become mothers they are often forced or have no choice but to leave school, and become another invisible statistic with a child to look after and often a husband to please in far from favourable environments. FORWARD is focused on ensuring that they now receive special and specific attention, like support to return to school, to ensure they are not left behind.

N’Mah, a child mother FORWARD and our partners Advocacy Movement Network (based in Sierra Leone) told us she wants to go back to school. She told us

“[child motherhood] affects me greatly, because I used to go to school but now no more, I used to have a lot of play mates, but now only with elders, at times I’m ashamed of going to certain places…

All this is happening to me now, because Ebola has killed my parents, my grandmother cannot afford all that I wanted. Since the day, I told the man who got me pregnant, that I’m pregnant, he ran away to Guinea and his parents don’t want to see me either, I’m struggling with my grandmother to take care of the child and I don’t have a single hope if I will be able to continue schooling”.

N’mah’s future is uncertain because she’s facing so many obstacles, but if she could get her education back on track it would open so many doors for her and allow her to fulfil her potential.

In January 2016 the Sustainable Development Goals came in force, a global development framework that 196 countries have made commitments to achieving. Goal 5 centres on creating gender equality and empowering all women and girls. The clock has starting ticking on progress, and we’re not working fast enough.

Educating girls goes beyond enabling them to claim their rights and has been described as the “world’s best investment” because it increases economic opportunities.. It increases a nation’s productivity and economic growth and leads to a cycle of healthier, better educated children.[1] For every girl who finishes school not only her life, but the lives of her children will be transformed because of the increased opportunities available to her.

FORWARD will be pioneering this campaign over the next three years. It is our hope that through this campaign, support for and acknowledgement of child mothers’ will become a key fixture on the international development agenda, we’ll keep fighting until both individual states and the international community prioritise the social and educational rights of child mothers, we invite you to join us. For more information on how you can help see here.

[1] Sperling, G. B. and Winthrop, R. 2016. What Works in Girls’ Education: Evidence for the World’s Best Investment. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.