by LAURA HILL
As a girl I dreamed of moving to the city, going to university, travelling the world, landing the perfect job and marrying Mr Right at a fairytale wedding. I had a scrapbook filled with cut-out wedding dresses from the newspaper and my best friend and I would spend hours flicking through second-hand bridal magazines from the hairdressers, while discussing who would be our bridesmaids.
While I was dreaming about arriving at the church in a Rolls Royce, millions of girls my age had little or no choice about when and who they would marry.
That was 15 years ago, and tragically the unjust practice of child marriage still happens today. In fact, every year 10 million girls are forced into marriage before their 18th birthday and in the time that it takes you to read this post 110 girls will have become child brides – often to men twice their age – condemning them to a life of poverty and injustice.
[To commemorate International Day of the Girl Child this year, photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair teamed up with National Geographic to create a series of photos depicting girls as young as five years old being married off to middle-aged men in countries like India, Yemen and Ethiopia. Take a look:
All images from the Daily Mail.]
Aid agencies warn that child marriage is, without exception, the biggest challenge to girls’ development and it’s not only girls who suffer. Child marriage perpetuates poverty by cutting short a girl’s education and livelihood opportunities, keeping her poor. Alarmingly, if nothing is done to stop child marriage, 100 million girls will become child brides in the next decade.
The reasons for child marriage are complex and varied: poverty, cultural norms, lack of education and political will all play a part. In many families, girls are viewed as an economic burden, and marrying them is seen as a way to alleviate household financial stress and provide for their daughter’s future. Community customs around the role of women, the appropriate age of marriage and family honour can also put pressure on families to marry their young daughters.
Fifteen-year-old Nitu from Nepal was in sixth grade when one afternoon her father came home smiling from ear to ear and announced that she would be married in one month. Ignoring the devastated look on Nitu’s face he went on to add how good the groom’s family was to demand very little dowry. Poverty is a curse for many people living in the southern plains of Nepal. It is also one of the reasons families give their daughters to be married at an early age. Earlier marriages, mean lower dowries.
Boys are married young, too, but a far greater number of girls are affected and it has a more devastating impact on their lives. By forcing a girl into premature adulthood, early marriage thwarts her chances at education, endangers her health and cuts short her personal growth and development.
Girls who marry young have an increased chance of being poor and remaining poor. They are more likely to suffer domestic violence and they face a host of health risks such as higher rates of maternal and infant death, obstetric fistula, malnutrition and HIV infection.
Maternal health risks are particularly troubling as risk of death in pregnancy and childbirth for girls under the age of 15 is five times higher than for women in their 20s. And babies of child brides are 60 per cent more likely to die before their first birthday than babies of mothers over 19.
Rukmini was 16 when she married a man 10 years older than her from an upper-caste family. Her husband’s family wouldn’t accept Rukmini because she was from a poor family. Months later Rukmini became pregnant. At the same time her husband and his family started beating her. When she was due to have her baby, they reluctantly took her to hospital but her baby boy didn’t survive. Rukmini was discharged from hospital a few days later but never made it home. She was found unconscious in the school yard and died in hospital from post-childbirth complications.
Child marriage is common in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In Niger, 75 per cent of girls are married before their 18th birthday and, 36 per cent are married by age 15. Sadly, only six per cent of girls in Niger receive a secondary education, despite it being well known that a girl’s level of education is the strongest predictor of the age she will marry. For instance, girls who complete secondary school are six times less likely to marry as children. In Mozambique, 60 per cent of girls with no education are married by 18, while only 10 per cent of girls with secondary schooling become child brides.
Stories like Nitu’s and Rukmini’s can be heard in every corner of the globe, even in countries where child marriage is illegal.
Half of all girls in India are married before age 18 even though it’s against the law.
Ending child marriage won’t happen by changing national laws alone. This global epidemic requires governments, local and religious leaders, communities and parents to recognise that child marriage is a human rights violation. It also requires increased political and financial investments in girls and support for already married-teenagers.
Momentum to end child marriage is building and grassroots programs exist. Worldwide, governments, communities and aid organisations are investing in girls and urging against child marriage. There are solutions. In Nepal, CARE worked with over 300,000 families from poor and socially excluded communities to reduce the practice of child marriage. As a result, the number of families willing to delay marriage of their daughters beyond their 18th birthday more than doubled from 40 to 90 per cent.
We can all play our part in encouraging change on a larger scale. Today is the first International Day of the Girl Child and it’s our chance to amplify the voices of the 25,000 girls who will become child brides today. Say ‘I don’t’ to child marriage by supporting aid agencies and community groups working at the grassroots, to draw international attention to the harms that child marriage can cause.
Through our action I hope that girls in developing countries, are able to be just that, girls – and have the time and space to do a little daydreaming, as I did, instead of being forced into marriage.
In Laura Hill’s job there’s never a dull moment. She is the Media Advisor at international aid organisation CARE Australia and gets to research, write and bring to light the issues that matter to women and girls in the 22 developing countries where CARE works. Follow her on Twitter here.