An estimated one in three girls in developing countries are forced to marry before they turn 18. One in nine are under the age of 15. Around 700 million women alive today were victims of this practice. But how often do you hear about this issue and its implications in the media? Can you name any international initiatives dedicated to fighting this practice? Probably not—but not because they don’t exist. Until very recently, these initiatives received little attention and resources.
It was not until September 2014 that the United Nations General Assembly held its first debate on child marriage Girls Not Brides, a global partnership that coordinates organisations dedicated to defending girls’ rights, was formed in 2011. But it was not until September 2014—just last month—that the United Nations General Assembly held its first debate on child marriage, after passing its first resolution on child marriage the previous year, even though this problem severely violates the human rights of millions of people and poses a major obstacle to development in many regions.
Many factors influence a family’s decision to marry off their children—usually girls—at a very young age: poverty, deeply rooted traditions, the parents’ lack of education, armed conflicts and humanitarian crises.
Child marriage is a complex issue that must be addressed from many angles. The international community, long silent or passive about the problem, can and must help to solve it. But how? They can ensure that the issue of ending child marriage is prioritised in the development agenda currently being developed for the coming decades: the Sustainable Development Goals. They can urge donors (who cannot expect their development goals for reproductive health, education and gender equality to be achieved in many regions if this issue is not addressed), the governments of affected countries, and organisations working at the community level to prioritise technical support and funding for programmes to combat child marriage. And they can mobilise communities to strategically train people and institutions to contribute to the change process and take ownership of it at the local level.
In other words, ending child marriage will require political will and the mobilisation of resources for interventions that work. And there are interventions that work, ranging from passing laws that that will eliminate the practice (and it is not enough to raise the legal marriage age; the laws must be enforced!) to making child marriage a central focus of development policy
Can countries like India and Nigeria truly be considered emerging when half of their girls are forced to marry before their 18th birthday?(despite their spectacular economic growth, can countries like India and Nigeria truly be considered emerging when half of their girls are forced to marry before their 18th birthday?). Programmes that educate parents about the harmful effects of early marriage and provide alternatives—subsidies, scholarships, or aid contingent upon registering girls at birth, sending them to school, and not marrying them off—are also effective. It is also crucial to provide married and at-risk girls with information about their rights as well as access to social services and health care. There are no quick fixes, but investing in these various strategies really does yield results: girls gain status in their families and communities, marriage is prevented or delayed, and conditions improve for married girls. The problem is that these solutions have only been applied on a small scale and never systematically. Meanwhile, 130 million girls remain at risk.
Child marriage directly jeopardises six of the eight Millennium Development Goals. If we truly want the Sustainable Development Goals to complete this “unfinished agenda”, the global, systemic and neglected issue of child marriage must be given high priority.
Previous Posts by the Author
Mother and Child Health: Progress Slow and Still Inadequate
7 Reasons Why Women Don't Get the Maternity Care They Need (infographic)