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.