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In Light of Freedom Day: Don’t Marry off the Girl Child, Empower Her!

Former First Lady of the US Michelle Obama, philanthropist Melinda French Gates, and prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney are spearheading the conversation around child marriage.

It is for the reason that they brought together influential leaders and experts on the 16th of November 2023 in Cape Town. Among them was Mozambican politician, humanitarian, and former First Lady of SA and Mozambique, Graça Machel, to engage in a discussion focussed on ending child marriage.

Panel on child marriage in Capetown, on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (The Obama Foundation)

Chaired by seasoned broadcaster Redi Tlabi, the panel discussion occurred in Cape Town, providing attendees with insight into the global issue of child marriage. Following their recent visit to Malawi, Obama, French Gates, and Clooney reflected on their discussions with partner organisations in the effort to combat child marriage.

During the panel discussion, Machel added her voice to the conversation, emphasising that such practices are often attributed to culture. She asserted, “There’s no culture that oppresses; it’s tradition; social norms that are man-made.” Urging society to deconstruct these social norms, she emphasised that it is our responsibility to dismantle all kinds of injustices.

Panel on child marriage in Capetown, on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (The Obama Foundation)

French Gates, who has worked closely with Machel, shared her experience of engaging with young women in Malawi for the first time in 2023. The young women expressed their desire for education, a better way of life, and the opportunity to live their dreams. She noted, “Often, we stunt their dreams because of things like child marriage, where we trade a young girl for money to an older man who buys food for her family.” The girls are expressing their need for a good education, skills, and knowledge about their health – both mental and reproductive – to empower themselves and protect against harm.

Panel on child marriage in Capetown, on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (The Obama Foundation)

Further emphasising the desire for a voice and agency in society, both within their families and communities. It is enlightening to learn that, from the collection of information and data, it becomes evident that a family’s well-being significantly improves when their daughter is empowered. This empowerment leads to enhanced health and wealth not only for her but also for her children.

Moreover, the empowerment of women contributes to the overall prosperity of the community, ultimately empowering the country and society at large. She underscores the importance of avoiding a scenario where parents must choose between investing in their sons or daughters. Instead, she advocates for investing in both, as the empowerment of both genders contributes to the creation of better societies for ourselves and the world.

Image: Thoko Chikondi

Reflecting on her recent visit to Malawi, Obama stated that she identified with the girls she met. Emphasising that the issue of child marriage extends beyond the African continent, she remarked, “Americans also grapple with valuing girls, and I am one of those girls. I grew up in a working-class community; my parents did not have the opportunity to attend college, and we did not possess wealth. We were ordinary people on the south side of Chicago, and we were poor.”

Obama shared that due to her early awareness of her worth, she recognised that she was undervalued. “Fast forward to the present, I have been visiting different countries to spend time with girls around the world. What I see in them is what I saw in myself; they know who they are.”

According to the most recent data published by Statista, Niger has the highest child marriage rate in the world. The statistics reveal that more than three-quarters of girls under 18 are married, with nearly 30% of them being younger than 15 years old. The Central African Republic, Chad, and Mali followed behind with rates ranging from 61 to 54%. Considering that the issue is widespread globally, particularly in African countries, Clooney’s approach to social impact includes defending the rights of victims and survivors through the Clooney Foundation for Justice.

Image: Thoko Chikondi

The Waging Justice for Women Fellowship is a new effort by the Clooney Foundation for Justice to empower the next generation of feminist lawyers to advance rights for women and girls in their communities. The Fellowship Programme launched in July 2023 and offers one-year, fully funded fellowships to an inaugural class of ten early-career women lawyers across Africa. Each Waging Justice for Women Fellow spends the year embedded with one of ten leading human rights organisations, equipping them with the tools they need to challenge inequality using the law.

Meet the Gender Justice Champions and Future Leaders


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South African lawyer serving her fellowship placement with the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA).


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Sierra Leonean lawyer serving her fellowship placement with AdvocAid.


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Liberian lawyer serving her fellowship placement with the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia.


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Malawian lawyer serving her fellowship placement with The Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA).


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Nigerian lawyer who will be serving her fellowship placement with The Legal Resources Centre-Ghana.


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Kenyan lawyer serving her fellowship placement with the Katiba Institute.


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South African lawyer who will be serving her fellowship placement with The Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria.


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Congolese lawyer serving her fellowship placement with The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA).


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Tanzanian lawyer serving her fellowship placement with the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU).


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Malawian lawyer serving her fellowship placement with the Women Lawyers Association (WLA).

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