Growing up in rural Central Kenya, my one dream was to be a doctor. I knew it was possible; all I had to do was work hard in school. After all, I had seen my sisters become practising doctors. Me sitting and writing this blog is testament to a young girl’s dreams fulfilled. I didn’t become a physician, but I applied myself in my studies and now am a Doctor of Philosophy.
What I didn’t know then as an idealistic young girl was that I was lucky: at least I could dare to dream. Today there are millions of girls who dare not dream, whose only choice is child marriage, a ‘choice’ that denies them a chance to access the educational opportunities I sought out as a girl.
Every year, a marriage or informal union is the outcome for 12 million girls globally before they even turn 18 years of age. Today, over 130 million girls are not in education. School drop-out is a key driver of child marriage, which in turn is a significant barrier to girls accessing quality education. Both issues are inextricably entwined, both driven by poverty and the underlying belief that girls and women are inferior to men and boys.
Sadly, this situation has been worsened by COVID-19. UNICEF estimates an additional 10 million girls will marry before 2030 due to pandemic-related restrictions. School closures will also have deep, long-lasting impacts on girls’ futures, especially for those living in poorer and more remote areas.
Keeping a girl in school, especially into secondary education, is one of the best ways of expanding her options beyond marriage.
For every additional year a girl stays in secondary education, she is on average 6 percentage points less likely to marry as a child.
But there are many barriers we need to overcome to achieve our goals. 335 million girls attend schools that lack menstrual hygiene facilities meaning they may miss school while having their period. Others miss school due to safety concerns, while in some countries, pregnant girls or young mothers are denied opportunities to return to school even if they want to, denying them their right to education.
Countries are slowly addressing some of these barriers. For example, last year Sierra Leone ended a discriminatory law that prevented pregnant girls’ and young mothers’ access to school for fear of encouraging other girls to become pregnant. A study from The Lancet found overturned bans on pregnant girls being in school resulted in lower rates of adolescent pregnancy in nine African countries.
We are calling on all governments to review and address such barriers to education so all girls can dare to dream.
At Girls Not Brides we know that collective action across sectors is a powerful tool to ensure girls can access education and live free from child marriage. Girls desire the same opportunities as their brothers and male classmates. Today we are joining their voices in advocating for greater access to education for girls so they too can access their rights.
We are currently working with partners and allies in two of the most affected countries in West Africa, Niger and Burkina Faso. Coalitions in both countries are uniting from the child marriage and education spaces to work collectively, spurred on by their interconnected goals: improving girls’ access to quality education and ending child marriage. Collaborations such as this exemplify how we can all make progress if we work together.
At the upcoming Global Programme for Education (GPE) Summit, world leaders have the opportunity to implement policies and commit resources to change the futures of millions of girls around the world.
We are calling for them to guarantee 12 years of quality, free and gender-responsive primary and secondary education for girls at risk of child marriage and for those who are already married.
In a world where girls are considered less-than, education systems must respond and adapt so they feel safe, included and able to participate.
Girls who are married, pregnant or young mothers cannot be excluded from these provisions, and discriminatory policies and practices that exclude these girls from educational spaces must be eliminated. In crisis situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, we must ensure all girls can access quality education safely, including comprehensive sexuality education.
These measures will not only result in positive, hopeful changes and broader horizons for girls everywhere, but will be beneficial to wider communities and economies.
Leaders at the GPE Summit this July have an opportunity to be girls’ allies and contribute to a better, more equal world. With sufficient funding and progress on education policies and programmes, collectively they can guarantee access to education for all girls around the world.
We must commit to building an equal world in which young girls can not only dare to dream, but also achieve their dream. We cannot afford to let girls down any longer. Whether a girl wants to be a teacher or tailor, a CEO or, like this former little girl, a doctor, we must not only amplify her voice but also call for action. The prize at the GPE Summit is gender equality in education together, let us make girls’ dreams come true.
This is the first in a series of blogs on leadership in the movement to end child marriage which will be published throughout 2021. Sign up to our newsletter to receive this straight to your inbox alongside key updates, stories and news from the global movement to end child marriage.
In the time it has taken to read this article 55 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 2 seconds