Swift action needed in fight against child marriage – UNFPA report

October 11, 2012

Despite gains in some countries, more than 14 million girls under age 18 will be married each year over the next 10 years, a figure expected to increase to more than 15 million girls a year between 2021 and 2030, according to a new report from the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) released on Thursday.

As the number of girls who are married as children grows, the number of children bearing children will increase, and deaths among girls will rise, said the report, timed to mark the inaugural International Day of the Girl Child.

International conventions declare that child marriage is a violation of fundamental human rights because it denies girls the right to choose when and with whom to marry.

The negative implications are far-reaching for girls, often leading to their early departure from school, economic dependency and difficulty finding a vocation or work outside the home. The practice can also perpetuate cyclical poverty and increase susceptibility to such sexually transmitted diseases as HIV/AIDS.

“In those communities where the practice of child marriage remains common, families can feel it’s not worth investing at all in the education of their daughters,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA’s executive director who last month launched a global campaign urging countries to invest in the education of women and young people.

“Girls with no education are more than three times more likely to marry before age 18 than those with secondary education or higher,” Osotimehin told TrustLaw.

“No country can afford the lost opportunity, waste of talent or personal exploitation that child marriage causes. Preventing child marriage is key to delivering healthier families, stronger societies and more prosperous economies.”

On Thursday, Osotimehin announced a new investment of $20 million from UNFPA targeted to help the most marginalised adolescent girls in 12 countries with high rates of child marriage, including Guatemala, India, Niger and Zambia.

In 2010, 158 countries reported that 18 was the minimum legal age for marriage for women without parental consent or approval by a pertinent authority, but in 146 countries, laws allow girls younger than 18 to marry with the consent of parents or other authorities. In 52 countries, girls under age 15 can marry with parental consent.

In contrast, 18 is the legal minimum age for marriage without consent among males in 180 countries. In 105 countries, boys can marry with the consent of a parent or a pertinent authority, and in 23 countries, boys under 15 can marry with parental consent.

There are 41 countries where 30 percent or more of women 20-24 years old had married by age 18, with Niger topping the list at 75 percent, the report said.

As the 2015 deadline for meeting the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) draws near, governments should recognize that tackling child marriage will help meet at least six of the eight anti-poverty targets, the report said.

Child marriage hinders progress on MDG3, the goal promoting gender equality and empowerment of women. Child brides are often married to men who are much older and, even if they are aware of their rights, cannot claim them.

The practice of child marriage also limits progress on MDGs focused on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS and achieving universal primary education.

Each year, almost 16 million girls aged 15-19 years old give birth; about 95 percent of these births occur in low- and middle-income countries. Stillbirths and deaths during the first week of life are 50 percent higher among babies born to adolescent mothers than among babies born to mothers in their twenties, the report said.

The majority of child marriages are concentrated in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the report said. In South Asia, the number of child brides is likely to increase from 4.9 million in 2010 to 5.6 million in 2030.

“The implications are staggering and demand swift action,” the report said. “Even at lower rates, the absolute number of girls likely to marry before age 18 will remain high as a result of population growth.”

The global population is projected to grow from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050.

In India, the prevalence of child marriage has declined from 54 per cent in 1992-1993 to 43 per cent in 2007-2008, UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, said in a statement which also noted that the rate of child marriage among girls under age 15 is declining at more than twice the rate than among girls under 18 (a 30 percent reduction versus a 13 percent reduction).

Governments must review national legislation and customary laws to reflect international human rights standards, the UNFPA report said, adding that greater efforts are needed to raise awareness and enforce existing laws.

Policymakers must target regions where there are high concentrations of girls at risk to ensure that family planning, health services, formal education and support for married girls are all available, the report said.

Picture Credit: A veiled girl from the Saraniya community waits for her engagement ceremony to start at Vadia village in the western Indian state of Gujarat March 11, 2012. REUTERS/Amit Dave

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