More than a third of girls in the region are married under the age of 18, with the rate over 50 percent in six countries and up to 76 per cent in Niger.
Driven by factors including poverty, insecurity and religious tradition, marrying off girls once they reach puberty or even before is a deeply engrained social custom in much of West and Central Africa.
The World Bank said the practice hampers global efforts to reduce poverty and population growth and has negative impacts on women’s and children’s health, educational achievements, and earnings.
The conference in Senegal’s capital Dakar, which included government, civil society, and religious representatives from 27 countries, was the first gathering of its kind to address child marriage in the region.
“What we need to end child marriage is a movement,” Francoise Moudouthe of advocacy group Girls Not Brides told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We hope this will be solidified in the region with this meeting.”
World leaders have pledged to end child marriage by 2030 under the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but at current rates it will take over 100 years to end it in West and Central Africa, UNICEF said.
Although the rate of child marriage has declined from 50 to 39 per cent across the region since 1990, population growth means that the number of child brides is still increasing, said Andrew Brooks, UNICEF’s regional head of child protection.
“I think the fact that they came is a sign that they’re ready to do something,” said Brooks of the local and national leaders present.
Other activists said they hoped the meeting would result in concrete national action plans and would pressure countries to enact and enforce laws against child marriage.
“We have heard your heartfelt cry,” said Senegal’s prime minister, Mohammed Dionne, to campaigners, who chanted
“No to child marriage” as he took the stage.
Dionne said: “the problem is how to move from vision to action,” said Dionne.
“Beyond the legal framework, what we need today is collective engagement in the search for solutions.”