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Sustainable development goals: why ending child marriage should be a target

Beauty and Hope are part of a youth campaigning group in Zambia. They meet with other children, government officials and their local communities to explain why early marriage is harmful. | Photo credit: Jessica Lea | UK Department for International Development.

This article was originally published on The Guardian Global Development Professionals Network

When you have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the face of global development, you want to make sure you make the most of it.

This is the challenging task governments face as they negotiate the goals and targets that will form the sustainable development goals (SDGs), an ambitious framework that could transform the world by 2030. There are many competing issues that could end up in the SDGs; the proposed framework includes no less than 17 goals.

Choosing the right targets will be essential to measure progress and focus efforts on where they will have the most impact. That is why governments should agree on a target “to end child, early and forced marriage”.

Not a niche issue

We have learned a lot since the millennium development goals (MDGs) were established. We now understand just how big the problem of child marriage is and how it undermines so many of our efforts to improve the wellbeing of millions. It’s a practice that traps 15 million girls a year into a cycle of poverty, ill health and inequality, and which has hindered the achievement of six of the eight MDGs.

Take goal three, for instance, which sought to “promote gender equality and empower women” – yet made no mention of child marriage. How can we empower women when so many girls are married off and denied their rights to health, education and a life free from violence and exploitation?

Child marriage and education (goal two) are intrinsically linked too. Girls without any education are three times as likely to marry before 18 as girls with secondary or higher education. This in turn affects efforts to eradicate extreme poverty (goal one), since child brides miss out on the educational and economic opportunities needed to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

Child marriage also undermines progress towards reducing maternal and infant mortality (goals four and five). Child brides are often pressured to have children – many and quickly – leaving them and their children vulnerable to injuries and even death.

A smart target

Thus setting a target “to end child, early and forced marriage” will not just help monitor progress on reducing child marriage globally. It will also help catalyse efforts towards achieving a number of the proposed SDGs on poverty, nutrition, health, education, economic growth and reduction of inequality – especially gender equality.

Delaying the age at which a girl marries is “smart investment”, according to an independent high-level taskforce of advisers on population and development.The advisers say this will lead to “improved educational attainment, higher earnings and greater health-seeking behaviour”. It could also have a multiplier effect that will benefit girls, their families and ultimately their communities and countries.

We don’t even need to work hard to set up new indicators if reducing child marriage is chosen as target. Every year, Unicef captures the percentage of women aged 20-24 who are married or in union by the age of 18 and 15 around the world.

Encouragingly, there is support for such a target. Ban Ki-moon has already called for the practice of child marriage to be ended everywhere, while the open working group on the SDGs proposed a target on “child, early and forced marriage” under a gender equality goal.

The means to achieving the SDGs

Of course, a target is not the be-all and end-all. As governments discuss how to finance the SDGs, it is vital that adequate funding goes to gender equality and realising the needs of adolescent girls. Ending child marriage and achieving gender equality requires policy change and political will. In addition, it will require implementing policies, services, programmes and broader social norm change initiatives – all of which require additional resources.

Agreeing on a target is an important starting point. If we miss this opportunity to make ending child marriage a global priority, it will be 15 years before we get another chance. That’s a whole generation of girls whose lives will be curtailed. Ultimately, it is to them that we will be accountable.