Today is the second observance of the International Day of the Girl Child. Girls are a very vulnerable group that in developing regions suffer from gender inequality, poverty and lack of rights--a population group that we have abandoned to their fate. The clearest proof of this neglect is the persistence of child marriages (marriage before the age of 18 and in most cases forced), a practice that crucially determines the fate of millions of girls. Forced marriage is a violation of the girls’ human rights. Moreover, it deprives them of education and represents a serious health risk, because these child-brides are more likely to experience sexual and psychological violence in the home. Uninformed and powerlessness to negotiate safer sex, they are exposed to high-risk and unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and mental illness to a greater extent than their single peers.
What do the available data tell us? The highest concentrations of child-brides are found in South Asia, where nearly half the girls are married before they reach their eighteenth birthday, and in Africa, where child marriage affects more than a third of all girls. Of 70 million child-brides, about 12% are married before the age of 15. And once again, the background is one of inequity: the predictors of early marriage are economic status (up to 54% of girls in the poorest quintile), lack of education (63% of those without primary education as compared to 20% of those who have completed secondary school), and residence in rural areas (44%).
It is no coincidence that the same countries that occupy the top positions in the depressing ranking of child marriages (in which Niger—with 75%—occupies first place, followed by countries such as Chad, Malawi, Mozambique and Bangladesh) also have the highest maternal mortality rates. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in these countries. In Africa, the continent with the largest proportion of maternal deaths in the world, teenagers account for a quarter of such fatalities.
Even at this time of constant assessment and evaluation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), insufficient attention has been paid to the close link between the situation of these child-brides and our failure to meet the targets for MDG5 (improving maternal health) or other goals, such as MDG4 (reducing child mortality—the children of child-mothers are up to 60% more likely to die during the first year of life), MDG2 (universal primary education) and MDG 3 (gender equality and empowerment of women).
How can we move forward? New actors have entered the arena as well as new global initiatives, such as Girls Not Brides. The high-level United National panel appointed by Ban Ki-moon to design the post-2015 framework has recommended that reduction in child marriages should be one of the four key indicators for measuring progress towards the empowerment of girls and women. But social change happens from the bottom up. Most countries have changed their laws to raise the minimum legal age for marriage, but little real progress has been made during the last decade.To effectively change the perceptions and behaviours that tend to become established at a very early age—such as the prejudice against educating girls—we need to involve local religious and community leaders, parents and teachers. In addition, alternative solutions must be found to reduce the likelihood that financial need will push parents into arranging marriages for their young daughters. Given the lack of political will to change the situation in the countries most affected, resources should be channelled to those who have more experience than anyone of the barriers that hamper the defence of the rights of girls, for example the local NGOs working in the field to fight these practices. For now, their work, which receives scant recognition, appears to be the only way to speed up the eradication of this terrible custom, which is both a cause and a consequence of underdevelopment.
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