Every year, more than 15 million girls around the world are married off as children, with devastating consequences for their health, education and emotional well-being.
The scale of this problem and its impact on so many girls, compels us to act, said experts during the first-ever panel discussion on child, early and forced marriage at the United Nations General Assembly.
Recent data from UNICEF shows that 700 million women alive today were married as children, including 250 million who were married before their 15th birthday. Experts warned that, because of population growth, the number of child brides would increase if action isn’t taken urgently.
“Behind the numbers, there is a girl whose life is shattered.Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, Goodwill Ambassador for the African Union’s Campaign to End Child Marriage
Member States and panellists agreed that the lack of attention to adolescent girls and child marriage in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), has held back our efforts to reduce global poverty. Amjad Rabi, from UNICEF presented a study showing that the loss of schooling due to child marriage has cost Nepal a staggering 3.87% of its GDP.
Child brides face increased risk in pregnancy and childbirth, an abrupt end to their education, and are more likely to suffer violence within marriage, added Anita Raj, director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health at the University of California at San Diego.
Child marriage also strips girls of their autonomy – their right to choose whom, when and whether to marry. “At the heart of child marriage is the inequality between women and men,” pointed John Hendra, Deputy Executive Director at UN Women.
“Behind the numbers, there is a girl whose life is shattered,” reminded Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, Goodwill Ambassador for the African Union’s Campaign to End Child Marriage.
Thankfully, crucial work is beginning to take place in countries where child marriage is common, with the governments of Nepal, Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania developing national action plans to end child marriage. Regionally, the African Union recently launched a continental campaign to end child marriage and in just a few years, Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage has grown to a network of over 400 civil society organisations in more than 60 countries, committed to ending child marriage.
There is opportunity for action. We seize it, or we lose it. We need to act now to end child marriage.Amjad Rabi, UNICEF Nepal
Change will ultimately happen locally, in the life of each girl at risk of child marriage. That means we must do much more to support the community groups, so often over-stretched and under-funded, that are working directly with girls and their families. And it means that States should provide adequate resources to implement laws and to deliver services to girls, ensuring they have options other than marriage and motherhood.
There is no single solution to end child marriage, but there are a number of steps that we know help girls to pursue a future of their own choosing. As Girls Not Brides’ Theory of Change on child marriage demonstrates, empowering girls to become advocates against child marriage, engaging men, boys and local leaders to change attitudes and behaviours, implementing and enforcing strong laws and ensuring that all births and marriages are registered, are each crucial pieces of the puzzle. Nothing short of a comprehensive approach will bring an end to child marriage.
We know what it will take to end child marriage, but as an international community will we have the courage to set and achieve that target?
With discussions underway about the next development framework to reduce global poverty will look like, we have a critical opportunity to improve the welfare and wellbeing of girls. At the UN General Assembly discussion, there was a resounding call from Member States and panellists for the inclusion of a strong target to end child marriage in the post-2015 development framework, which will replace the MDGs for the coming 15 years.
Over 70 countries have spoken out in support of including child marriage in the post-2015 development agenda so far, but we cannot take for granted that child marriage will be in the next set of goals. We need to ensure that States don’t just come out in support of efforts to end child marriage; they must actively contribute to them.
As UNICEF Nepal’s Amjad Rabi told the General Assembly: “There is opportunity for action. We seize it, or we lose it. We need to act now to end child marriage.”
In the time it has taken to read this article 46 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds
Girls Not Brides
Ommera Zafar is Policy Assistant at Girls Not Brides.