An adolescent girl living in poverty could be the most powerful person in the world. If she is reached early enough, she can accelerate economies, arrest major global health issues and break cycles of poverty.
When a girl gets a chance to stay in school, remain healthy, gain skills, she will marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and earn an income that she’ll invest back into her family and community. When she can grow into a woman and become an educated mother, an economic actor, an ambitious entrepreneur, or a prepared employee, she breaks the cycle of poverty. She and everyone around her benefits.
Child marriage is one of the barriers preventing the 600 million adolescent girls in developing countries from unleashing their full potential. One in seven is forced into marriage before the age of 15, and if these trends continue, 100 million girls will marry over the next decade – that is about 25,000 children married every day for the next 10 years.
Child marriage triggers a cycle of poverty, disadvantage and despair. At a basic level, it puts girls at a great risk. Fifty percent of girls in developing countries become mothers before age 18 – many before their bodies have matured – which puts them at higher risk for infant and maternal mortality. In fact, the leading cause of death among girls ages 15-19 worldwide is medical complications due to pregnancy. Girls between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20 to 24; sadly, the vast majority of these deaths take place within marriage.
Child brides are also at higher risk of contracting HIV as their husbands are at times older men with more sexual experience. They are also more vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence at the hands of their husbands – and are more likely to think that it is okay when they are victims of abuse. The 2011 State of World’s Children report found that 77 percent of adolescent girls aged 15-19 surveyed in Ethiopia, believed a husband is justified in striking his wife in comparison to 53 percent of boys.
While the statistics are daunting, there are solutions and a tremendous opportunity before us. Developing nations around the world are making efforts to combat child marriage by changing laws and enforcing existing ones. In recent years, we have begun to see progress on laws related to child marriage in countries like Ethiopia, India, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, which have all passed laws that either raise the age of child marriage or outlaw child marriage all together.
For example, in 2008, the Indian government introduced a program in seven states that will give payments to parents when a girl reaches the age of 18 and is not married. In Zimbabwe, a bill was passed in 2007 that made cultural practices including pledging girls for marriage illegal.
Now we need to continue to create international pressure to spur change at a faster rate. We need to implement the solutions we know exist to combat the practice of child marriage. In particular, in countries or sub-national regions with a high prevalence of child marriage, the U.S. administration should enhance their strategy to effectively address the issue; integrate child marriage into existing U.S. foreign assistance programs that are currently undermined by this practice, including maternal health, violence, HIV prevention, education and economic development; collect data on the prevalence of child marriage and best practices to monitor and report on progress made; and continue to report on child marriage as part of the State Department’s Annual Human Rights Report.
The UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign has added its voice to the chorus of advocates deriding the harmful practice of child marriage. More than100,000 of their teen supporters are rallying together, and asking the Obama Administration to strategically address the issue of child marriage so that girls in places like Ethiopia, Malawi and Guatemala won't be forced into getting married and bearing children as children themselves. The girls are also raising critical dollars that will go towards UN programs fighting to end child marriage in Ethiopia and Malawi.
These girls should be applauded for standing up for their sisters in developing countries and joining the coalition of organizations, including International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), CARE and International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), who have been leading the charge to bring an end to the destructive practice of child marriage.
Investing in adolescent girls and placing them at the center of international and national action is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do. The truth is, adolescent girls will either accelerate growth or perpetuate poverty. It all depends on how we choose to invest resources to make current efforts more effective by also addressing the health and rights needs of girls.