History was made at the Africa4Girls summit in Dakar, Senegal, on Tuesday when the deputy grand Imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Dr. Salah Abbas, issued a fatwa against child marriage.
A fatwa is a formal ruling in Islamic law, and its authority is considered absolute.
The office of the Imam of Al Azhar is considered the highest authority in Islamic law for Sunni Muslims, who account for around 75% to 90% of all Muslims globally.
According to the fatwa, both girls and boys must be 18 years old to get married; any marriage at a younger age is forbidden.
“Marriage in Islam is based on the consent of both parties, especially the girl...the minimum age required for consent is 18 years old,” the deputy grand Imam said.
The fatwa is a huge milestone in the fight against child marriage in Africa. According to the Africa4Girls website, 39% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before their 18th birthday, and 13% before their 15th birthday.
The deputy Grand Imam of @AlAzhar & his team writing a new Fatwa to advise that both girls and boys should be aged 18 before entering into marriage in order for them to have the appropriate level of maturity.@UN_Women@phumzileunwomen@JahaENDFGM#Africa4Girls2030pic.twitter.com/w3qwwo6O4V— UN Women Africa (@unwomenafrica) June 18, 2019
Although Abbas’ speech was short, it was very precise about the cost of child marriages — that they steal girls’ childhoods.
“Consent requires that the girl is sufficiently mature and able to express her will to marry,” Abbas said. “That in turn guarantees her full enjoyment of her fundamental rights to childhood, education, and the ability to meet the responsibilities of marriage.”
The Africa4Girls summit was attended by activists, policy-makers, and heads of state, and formed part of ongoing dialogue and action to end child marriage and female gential mutialition (FGM) in Africa by 2030.
Among the attendees was the deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Dereje Wordofa, who called the first Africa summit on FGM and child marriage “timely and crucial.”
“Low status of girls, economic hardship, insecurity, especially in humanitarian crises — whatever is the reason for child marriage — the consequences are the same: child marriage violates human rights and derails their lives,” Wordofa said.
Abbas’s fatwa was welcomed by activists, including Jana Mapenzi Dukureh, who is the United Nations Women regional goodwill ambassador and the founder of Safe Hands for Girls. The organisation is championing the end of FGM and other practises that are harmful to girls.
“This is a historic moment for us and everyone that works for the equality of girls,” she tweeted after the announcement.
It’s not yet clear when the fatwa will come into effect or in which countries it will be applicable.