Every day an estimated 25,000 girls are married off against their will. Some are as young as eight years old. Others have just entered puberty. No matter their age, the moment the wedding ceremony ends, so do the girls’ dreams of becoming a teacher, a health worker, a lawyer.
It’s a tragic scenario, but not just for girls. It’s tragic for all of us who desire an economically stable, healthy world. Instead of growing up to be women who can contribute to the overall well-being of their families and communities, most child brides will drop out of school. From Yemen to Nicaragua, many girls will give birth while their own bodies are still developing, leading to terrible health problems. Most will live in servitude and suffer abuse. These are common outcomes of child marriage that perpetuate the cycle of poverty, lack of education, poor health and gender inequity in low-income societies.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Investing now in girls at risk of early marriage can yield lasting social and economic benefits not only for the girls themselves, but their families and society, too. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the smart thing to do.
ICRW has been advocating for the past decade on the need to end the harmful practice child marriage from a development, human rights and gender equity perspective. We have been putting ideas to practice in countries like Ethiopia and India. And now we find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented growing movement to end child marriage: The Elders, an eminent group of former leaders like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, this year launched Girls Not Brides, a global campaign to raise awareness of the ills caused by child marriage. Other influential individuals also are shining a spotlight on the practice, such as award-winning photographer Stephanie Sinclair whose images documenting child brides have brought the issue into the mainstream. And news outlets such as The Daily Beast, National Geographic and many more are finally bringing much-needed attention to the poorest, most remote parts of the world where child marriage persists.
Indeed, in societies where early marriage is most common, girls are not valued in the same ways as boys. This is not to say that their families don’t love them. Many girls’ parents want to delay marriage, but with scant resources and social pressures, they feel they are left with no alternative.
But there are alternatives. Harmful social norms can – and do – change. The promising practices ICRW has uncovered are a starting point for creating a more equitable environment for girls. And what’s more, there is evidence that they are working.
Some approaches that address the multiple causes and consequences of child marriage include: Arming girls with information, skills and support networks so they gain confidence and know themselves, their world and their options; educating parents on the long-term economic benefits of delaying marriage; mobilizing communities to adopt social norms that support those willing to buck the custom of early marriage; and offering economic incentives for girls and their families, who often are motivated by poverty and the lack of viable income-generating options.
More than any other time in recent history, this is the moment to redouble our joint efforts and work toward ending the harmful practice of child marriage so no girl is forced to wed too young and give up her dreams. Let’s do just that by making more investments and demonstrating the political will to create the first generation of girls who will rightly worry about finishing their homework, instead of feeding their husbands.
Sarah Degnan Kambou is president of the International Center for Research on Women.