Yahya Jammeh
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh announced a ban on child marriage Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty

Gambia has raised the bar through its recent ban on child marriages, just weeks after Tanzania made a similar move. Marrying early often means girls drop out of school, are exposed to domestic and sexual violence, increases in serious health risks and death from early pregnancies and HIV, ultimately trapping young girls in poverty.

Child marriage is both physically and psychologically damaging. A total of 36% of girls in the Gambia are married before 18, and approximately 7% before 15, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Taking a tough stance, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh announced a ban on child marriage in the predominantly Muslim small west African nation of about 1.8 million people. He warned that heavy jail terms would be handed down to those found breaking the law.

"As from today, July 6, child marriage is illegal and is banned in The Gambia," Jammeh told a group of Muslim elders in the capital, Banjul. "Anyone who marries a girl under 18 years will spend 20 years in jail. The girls' parents would spend 21 years in jail and anyone who knows about it and fails to report the matter to the authorities would spend 10 years in jail."

Committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential, Jammeh said that those found aiding or abetting a child to marry would also face jail under the new law. According to the leader, the Imam and those that preside over the marriage ceremony would also be sent to jail. "If you want to know whether what I am saying is true or not, try it tomorrow and see," he warned.

In December 2015, Gambia officially banned female genital mutilation (FGM), which usually involves the removal of a young girl's labia and clitoris, and set penalties of up to life in prison for offenders of the new law. Under the bill, offenders face fines of 50,000 dalasi (£907, $1,173) or three years in prison. Those found guilty of causing death by FGM could face life sentences.

African leaders making new push to end child marriage

The new legislation, which is expected to be passed before 21 July, comes just weeks after Tanzania, a nation with one the highest child marriage rates in the world, passed a law that Tanzanian men found marrying or impregnating schoolgirls now face 30 years in prison.

While Zimbabwe and Malawi also recently banned child marriages, a staggering 40% of girls marry before 18 in sub-Saharan Africa, and African countries account for 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage, according to Unicef.

Factors contributing to child marriage are countless, but poverty is commonly cited by girls and family members as a driving factor for marrying young. For poor families, with little money even for food and basic necessities, marrying off their daughter early is an economic survival strategy, the rights group said, as it means one less child to feed or educate.

Legal frameworks, which can play a powerful role in transforming norms and protecting girls' rights, meanwhile, could curb a number of hurtful customary practices.