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Child marriage: the harmful misconceptions

Photo credit: Her Turn, Nepal

When we hear of a 10 year-old girl getting married, our initial reaction is one of outrage. Why would any parent marry off their daughter to a much older man? Doesn’t child marriage mean high risk of domestic violence, isn’t early childbirth the leading cause of death for adolescent girls in the developing world? But do we really understand the problem?

As the Global Coordinator of Girls Not Brides, I hear many misconceptions around child marriage every day, often from very well-meaning people.

Here’s what I hear all the time:

  • Child marriage is a Muslim problem
  • Parents who marry off their daughters clearly don’t care about them
  • There is nothing we can do to change this

Despite what most people believe, child marriage is not a problem linked to a single religious tradition. In fact, while no religion sanctions or justifies the practice, child marriage happens across cultures, ethnicities and countries. It happens everywhere, to 14 million girls a year; to Muslim, Christian, Hindu girls, as well as those from other faiths.

As outsiders it is easy to make assumptions and state that marriage should wait but parents who live in poverty face tough choices. And like everyone else, they are trying to do what they believe is in the best interest of their child.

If someone lives in a small village where food is scarce and has many children to feed, it may feel that the most loving sacrifice you can make is to get your daughter married young to a man you hope will protect her, even if he lives far away and is much older than she is.

But what can we do about it? Many feel that the problem is too complicated and too steeped in cultural traditions. But change is possible and at Girls Not Brides we’re seeing it everyday.

Many feel that the problem is too complicated and too steeped in cultural traditions. But change is possible and at Girls Not Brides we’re seeing it everyday.

Change comes through dialogue within communities, when girls and women are educated about their rights and can stand up for themselves, and when community leaders, men and boys support and respect these rights. Change comes when governments enact and enforce laws that set a minimum age for marriage, and make sure that communities are aware of these laws.

Change comes when girls can go to schools that are safe and accessible and provide quality education. Ultimately, change comes when parents feel they have viable alternatives to marriage for their daughters.

Even if eventually change will come from within, everyone’s effort matters. By supporting projects on the ground aiming at educating communities against this practice, anyone can achieve a lot. By helping to address the prejudices and misconceptions surrounding the practice, we help transform mentalities.

It won’t be easy to end child marriage around the world, but it is possible.

Starting off by recognising that most parents, wherever they live, love their children and want a positive future for them is a good place to start.