Breaking the Cycle: Ending Child Marriage in Senegal

In Senegal, a young girl’s childhood, which should be filled with laughter and innocence, is frequently cut short by the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood. Imagine yourself as a child, dreaming of your future, only to be thrown into a role you are unprepared for — that of a wife. This heartbreaking reality remains for many Senegalese girls since the Senegal Family Code of 1989 allows girls as young as sixteen to marry, while boys must be at least eighteen.[1] This disparity not only contradicts recognized international legal standards but also demonstrates a structural inequality that perpetuates injustice.[2]

Legal Framework and Challenges

Senegal is bound by various international treaties that set the legal minimum age for marriage at eighteen and expressly prohibit child marriage and gender-based discrimination. Senegal ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985.[3] In order to ensure equality between men and women in their right to marry, CEDAW mandates the elimination of discrimination against women in all areas of family life and marriage.[4] Senegal also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990.[5] The CRC defines a “child” as an individual below the age of eighteen.[6] Additionally, Senegal ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 1998.[7] The African Charter prohibits child marriage for both girls and boys, and imposes an obligation on state parties to pass legislation prohibiting marriage below the age of eighteen.[8] Senegalese law, however, continues to violate these international treaties to which it is legally bound, discriminating against girls and failing to uphold human rights principles.[9]

Child marriage is a clear violation of children’s human rights, as it is a serious form of child abuse that denies girls their rights to equality, education, and health.[10] Despite being prohibited by international human rights law, this practice persists, tragically depriving millions of girls worldwide of their youth.[11] West and Central Africa have the world’s highest rates of child marriage, with almost sixty million child brides.[12] In this region, four out of every ten girls marry before the age of eighteen.[13] Senegal grapples with deeply entrenched cultural, religious, and societal traditions that uphold gender inequality by treating girls as inferior to boys and pressuring them to marry at a young age.[14] In Senegal, only one percent of boys marry before the age of eighteen, compared to thirty-one percent of girls who marry before the age of eighteen, and nine percent of girls who marry before the age of fifteen.[15] This disparity highlights the disproportionate burden of early marriage on Senegalese girls compared to boys.

Matrimonial Traditions and Their Impact on Girls’ Lives

Senegalese cultural and religious beliefs place a high value on virginity and stigmatize pregnancies outside of marriage, placing significant pressure on parents to arrange marriages for their daughters at a young age.[16] Despite the considerable risks marriage poses to the wellbeing of their daughters, Senegalese families frequently perceive child marriage as a means of preserving their honor and avoiding shame.[17] This practice, however, has potentially life-threatening consequences, forcing girls out of education and into dangerous situations where they are more vulnerable to violence, abuse, forced sexual relations, poor health, and early death.[18]

Child marriage can have detrimental effects. One common outcome of child marriage is early pregnancy, which increases the risk of a variety of medical issues, including a devastating childbirth injury known as obstetric fistula.[19] Maternal mortality is another grave consequence, as evidenced by the alarming maternal mortality rate among adolescent mothers.[20] According to statistics, the maternal mortality rate for mothers between the ages of fifteen and nineteen is 629 deaths per 100,000 births, whereas the rate for mothers between the ages of twenty to twenty-four is 371 deaths per 100,000 births.[21] Furthermore, children born to mothers under the age of twenty have a forty percent higher risk of dying in their first year of life than children born to mothers who are between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine.[22] These alarming statistics highlight the urgent need to address child marriage by dismantling institutional barriers that perpetuate this practice and by funding initiatives that prioritize girls’ education and well-being.

The Role of Education

Due to the domestic and marital responsibilities associated with early marriage, many girls abandon their formal education, if they had access to it in the first place.[23] Education is widely regarded as one of the most important factors in delaying the age of marriage for girls.[24] The relationship between education and the age of marriage is evident; primary school education greatly reduces the likelihood of marrying before the age of eighteen, while secondary school education provides even greater protection by further lowering the likelihood.[25] According to UNICEF research, girls in Senegal who attended primary school were less likely to be married by the age of eighteen.[26] Twenty percent of girls who received a primary education were married by the age of eighteen, compared to thirty-six percent of those who did not.[27] Secondary school attendance had an even greater impact.[28] Compared to girls who had only attended primary school, girls with a secondary education had a ninety-two percent lower likelihood of being married by the age of eighteen.[29] In addition to delaying marriage, education empowers girls by expanding their choices and opportunities, enabling them to realize their full potential.[30]

Breaking the Cycle

A transition away from child marriage in Senegal will begin when parents envision alternative futures for their daughters, empowering girls to pursue their aspirations rather than being forced into early marriages.[31] However, this shift is not solely reliant on parental attitudes; Senegal’s legal framework also plays a crucial role in breaking this cycle safeguarding girls from early marriage.[32] Senegal’s current Family Code fails to provide this necessary protection, contravening CEDAW, the CRC, and the African Charter.[33] To address this, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concerns to Senegal over its lack of effective efforts to reconcile it’s legislation with intentional commitments and raise the legal minimum age of marriage for girls to eighteen.[34] In December 2019, the Senegalese government reported to the CEDAW Committee that the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Women, Family and Gender had begun the process of reviewing national legislation to eliminate laws that discriminate against women and bring them into compliance with international legal standards.[35] The proposed revisions include amendments to Article 111 of the Family Code, which concerns the legal minimum age of marriage for girls.[36] Additionally, the Senegalese government announced the establishment of The Agenda for Young Girls 2020-2024 in the 2022 CEDAW Concluding Observation, aiming to combat child marriage.[37]

These initiatives alone, however, are insufficient; extensive legal reforms and robust enforcement mechanisms are required to truly address Senegal’s deeply entrenched cultural, religious, and societal traditions that perpetuate gender inequality and fuel child marriage.[38] Amending Article 111 of the Family Code is an essential step to ensure that neither boys nor girls can marry before the age of eighteen.[39] This amendment would initiate the process of ending child marriage in Senegal.[40] It would help to ensure that girls stay girls and not wives, and protect the human rights of children.[41] Senegal must also prioritize the empowerment of girls through education, economic opportunities, and widespread access to sexual and reproductive health services.[42] Furthermore, community engagement and awareness-raising initiatives are crucial for challenging this harmful, discriminatory practice and promoting supportive environments in which girls can thrive and realize their full potential.[43] Until these fundamental changes are made, the cycle of child marriage will persist, and countless girls will be denied the opportunity to lead fulfilling and dignified lives.

[1] Code de la Famille (1989) Art. 111 (Senegal)

[2] African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, art. 21(2), opened for signature July 11, 1990, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/24.9/49 (entered into force Nov. 29, 1999) [hereinafter African Charter].

[3] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, art. 16(1)(a)-(2), opened for signature Mar. 1, 1980, 1249 U.N.T.S. 14 (entered into force Sept. 3, 1981) [hereinafter CEDAW].

[4] Id.

[5] Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 1, opened for signature Nov. 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force Sept. 1990) [hereinafter CRC].

[6] Id.

[7] African Charter, supra note 2.

[8] Id.

[9] Code de la Famille, supra note 1.

[10] Child Marriage in Senegal, Save the Children (2017),

[11]  Anthony Davis, Claire Postles & Giorgiana Rosa, A girl’s right to say no to marriage: Working to end child marriage and keep girls in school, Plan Int’l 6 (2013),

[12] What Will It Take to End Child Marriage in Senegal, African Feminism (Jan. 25, 2024),

[13] Id.

[14] Senegal, Girls Not Brides,

[15] African Feminism, supra note 12.

[16] Girls Not Brides, supra note 14.

[17] Id.

[18] Davis, supra note 11.

[19] Save the Children, supra note 10.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] African Feminism, supra note 12.

[24] Id. at 8.

[25] Id. at 13.

[26] Davis, supra note 11 at 13.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id. at 6.

[31] Kieran Guilbert, Family honor, more than money, fuels child marriage in West Africa, Reuters (May 29, 2017, 6:04 PM),

[32] Save the Children, supra note 10.

[33] Code de la Famille, supra note 1.

[34] Press Release, U.N. Child Rights Comm., UN Child Rights Committee publishes findings on Bulgaria, Condo, Lithuania, Russian Federation, Senegal and South Africa (Feb. 8, 2024).

[35] Comm. on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Eighth periodic report. submitted by Senegal under article 18 of the Convention, U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/SEN/8 (2019).

[36] Id.

[37] Comm. on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding observations on the eight periodic report of Senegal, U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/SEN/CO/8 (2022).

[38] Davis, supra note 11 at 48, 52.

[39] Save the Children, supra note 10.

[40] Comm. on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, supra note 30 at ¶ 22(b).

[41] Id.

[42] Id. at 36(a), 40(a).

[43] Ending child marriage in Senegal through radio and agriculture, Girls Not Brides,