This blog was originally published on The Toronto Star on 21 November, 2014.
Last Friday, thanks to the leadership of the government of Canada and its partner Zambia, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a historic resolution on child, early and forced marriage. The resolution compels us to take child marriage seriously, recognizing it as a global problem that undermines our efforts to reduce poverty and build a world that is more equal.
Each of the 15 million girls a year who marry as children has a story that cuts right to your heart. In Zambia I recently met Chi-Chi who was 15 when her father married her off in exchange for a bride price. Her marriage was not a happy one. She dropped out of school, was beaten by her husband and became a mother before she was ready.
If girls are born into poverty, early marriage is the best way to keep them there. Married girls under 18 are least likely to receive medical care and those under 15 are five times more likely to die as a result of complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women in their early 20s.
If girls are born into poverty, early marriage is the best way to keep them there.
As a global human rights leader for many decades, Canada’s active support for ending child marriage is warmly welcomed. It is only in the past few years that the scale and impact of child marriage has filtered into international development and human rights debates — and Canada has played a vital role. I hope that Canada will continue to exercise leadership to ensure a target to end child marriage is included in the new, post-2015 global development goals.
But there is much more to do if we are to match the magnitude of child marriage. Canada has made some impressive commitments to improve maternal and child health around the world and to ensure that more children are able to attend and complete school. I urge the government to integrate child marriage throughout this work because let’s face it, how will we ensure that every child can complete school when so many girls drop out for marriage? How will we reduce maternal deaths when so many children are giving birth as children?
We also need to do more to support the grassroots groups making a difference in the life of girls. Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of civil society organizations, many of which are working closely with communities where child marriage is common. They work in testing conditions and with few resources, yet the relationships that they have are priceless. It is they who will prompt the conversations that help families and communities see that child marriage is not the best option for their daughters.
We also need to do more to support the grassroots groups making a difference in the life of girls.
There is important work to be done too in helping girls to envision a bright future. In Chi-Chi’s case, she was able to attend a local girls’ empowerment group run by YWCA Zambia, a member organization of Girls Not Brides. Thanks to their support Chi-Chi learned that she had rights and that she had choices. She became determined to resume school. She worked to pay for her school fees and soon divorced her husband. Chi-Chi is now preparing to join the University of Zambia.
Global resolutions demonstrate the commitment of governments to face up to problems like child marriage. But adopting a UN resolution doesn’t mean that child marriage will end overnight. I encourage Canada to match its leadership on the global stage with more funding and large-scale programs because we won’t end a problem as big as child marriage if we’re not ambitious and don’t scale up our efforts to reach every girl.
I encourage Canada to match its leadership on the global stage with more funding and large-scale programs because we won’t end a problem as big as child marriage if we’re not ambitious and don’t scale up our efforts to reach every girl.
Ending child marriage is not only a moral obligation, it is also smart development. Yet, this is not a challenge that can be addressed in two- to three-year funding cycles. Changing social norms takes time. I sincerely hope that all parties in Canada will commit to addressing child marriage for the long term and enable more girls like Chi-Chi to thrive.
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
Mabel van Oranje
Girls Not Brides
Mabel van Oranje is Chair of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage. She is the recipient of the 2014 John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Awards.