How to tackle the child marriage crisis
By the end of today another 25,000 young children will have been robbed of their childhoods, cheated of their right to an education, exposed to life-threatening health risks, and set on a path that often leads to a life of servitude and poverty. Their plight is the result of widespread and systematic human rights violations. Yet the source of the injustice they suffer is hidden in the shadows of debates on international development: They are child brides.
Each year, 1.5 million girls — many just starting their adolescent years — become child brides. It was shocking for us to discover the sheer scale of the problem and to understand its impact on human rights and the life cycle of opportunities, and most tragically of all, on maternal and infant death rates.
Early marriage is a hidden crisis. Because the victims are overwhelmingly young, poor and female, their voices are seldom heard by governments. Their concerns do not register on the agendas of global summits. But early marriage is destroying human potential and reinforcing gender inequalities on a global scale. It is subjecting young girls to the elevated health risks that come with early pregnancy and childbirth. It is reinforcing the subordination of women. And it is holding back progress toward the United Nation’s 2015 goal of universal primary education. Without educating girls who are not in school today and preventing them from marrying, we cannot ever hope to meet the Millennium Development Goals.
The full extent of child marriage is not widely recognized. A new report just published by my office identified 16 countries in which over half of the young women were married by the age of 18. On a regional basis, West Africa has the highest incidence of child marriage, with Mali, Chad and Niger recording rates in excess of 70 percent. The practice is also widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, and in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, where many children marry at a far younger age than 18.
Yet one of the gravest injustices suffered by child brides is the denial of education. Marriage and premature pregnancies keep millions of girls out of school, imprisoned in a world of diminished opportunity. Once married or pregnant, few child brides make it back into school. For example, our research shows that only 2 percent of married girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in Nigeria attend school, compared with 69 percent of unmarried girls. Denied the chance to realize their potential through education, many of these girls will be condemned to lives blighted by poverty, illiteracy and powerlessness.
A casualty of child marriage, education is also a fundamental solution to the problem. Women who are educated marry later, especially if they reach secondary school. Compared with women who have either no education or just primary schooling, the median age of marriage among girls with a secondary education is more than two years higher in Bangladesh and Nigeria, three years higher in Ethiopia and Mali, and four years higher in Chad.
Keeping girls in school and out of child marriages will also save lives. If, through a combination of education and other policies, half of the world’s teenagers delayed birth until after the age of 20, the associated decline in infant mortality rates would save 166,000 young lives a year — or over half a million lives in the three and a half years until the 2015 Millennium Development Goal on child mortality. And not only would children’s lives be saved, but mothers’ as well. Over 70,000 teenage mothers die in pregnancy or childbirth every year, a number that has remained static while it appears that for older women the figures have been coming down.
Getting girls into school and keeping them there would of course make child marriage less likely and accelerate progress toward the 2015 goal of Education for All. Experience across many countries has demonstrated what works. Financial incentives in the form of conditional cash transfers for parents who keep their daughters in school, together with mentoring, engagement with communities and persuasion all have a role to play. The problem is that current efforts are fragmented and operating at an insufficient level of ambition.
To tackle the child marriage crisis, we need an integrated global campaign that brings the issue of child marriage in from the sidelines to the center of the international development agenda. All governments in countries where child marriage is prevalent should prepare a national strategy for halving, over the next decade, the level of marriage before the age of 18. U.N. agencies and the World Bank, along with bilateral donors and regional development agencies in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, must become more actively engaged and better coordinated in their response to early marriage. And the European Union should host a global summit on child marriage in 2013 to prepare the way for a concerted strategy for international cooperation.
Finally, we must take action through existing Education for All partnerships. As the primary multilateral financing vehicle in education, the Global Partnership for Education should mobilize finance aimed at supporting governments and non-governmental organizations that seek to keep young girls out of early marriage. It should establish a financing window directed toward supporting conditional cash transfers and other policies targeting young girls at risk of early marriage.
To be sure, there are certainly no easy solutions to the crisis of child marriage. It will take leadership, perseverance and global cooperation to turn the tide. In a week when the world’s attention is focused on the contribution of women and girls, what better moment at which to begin the work?
PHOTO: Child bride Krishna, 12, plays on an improvised swing outside her house in a village near Baran, located in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, India, July 30 , 2011. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui