When Mejgon was 11 years old, her father sold her to a married 60-year-old Afghanistan man for two boxes of heroin. “In my whole life, I’ve never felt love,” Mejgon, who endured years of abuse, told National Geographic photographer Stephanie Sinclair when she was 16.
A staggering 14 million girls are married before age 18 each year. Child marriage lies at the intersection of issues negatively impacting young women – it violates human rights, it stops schooling, and limits their future and potential.
Recent research by the International Center for Research on Women1 has shown that girls’ rights, health and development are undermined by the impact of early marriage. Early marriage often leads to pregnancy which can affect their health and can lead to death. The second leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 is complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Most married girls drop out of school which limits their ability to work and be productive, affecting the lives of their children, families and their nations. In the absence of valid consent – which ‘children’ by definition are not able to give – child marriage may be understood as a coerced act that violates the human rights of 14.2 million girls who marry as children each year.
India is the worst offender, with 47% of girls married before the age of 18, followed by Brazil and Mexico. 51 countries have national child marriage prevalence rates of 25% or higher. Yet child marriage is a universal issue - it occurs in every region, among people of every religion. It is part of the broader global pattern of adolescent girls’ early and inegalitarian sexual relationships, often with boys or men who are significantly older than they are.
Child marriage results from culture, customs, religious practices and the subjugation of women. Deeply help values and convictions need to be addressed for change to occur. Education is also important since some parents feel they are protecting their daughter from rape or a life of hardship since girls have limited chance to go to school in some areas.
Child marriage is often a result of poverty. Parents of the bride usually receive money from their daughter’s bride price, or payment by the groom’s family. They also have one less person to feed and take care of, a factor in large, poor families. The economic drivers need to be understood when working to reduce child marriage.
What can be done to reduce child marriage? First, provide universal education for girls. The more girls are educated and understand their rights, the less they will feel trapped by limited choices and be able to speak up for themselves. Second, educate the parents. Parents need to understand how harmful it is to marry their daughters early and how valuable it is for them to complete their education. Third, enhance access and quality of formal schooling for girls so girls have an equal opportunity.
Fourth, offer economic support and incentives for girls and their families. Economic training, support and incentives that address families’ economic reasons for marrying their daughters early provide alternatives to marriage and increase the value of girls to their families of origin. One example is Berhane Hewan in Ethiopia, which provided families with a goat as long as their daughters remained in the program and remained unmarried until age 18.2 Another example is the Zomba cash transfer program in Malawi, which found unconditional cash transfers to be more effective in delaying marriage than conditional transfers.3
Fifth, pass laws that prohibit child marriage under 18, with oversight and accountability to ensure it is enforced. Some countries, such as India, have laws but their rate of child marriage is the highest in the world. For the laws to be effective they need to be enforced at all levels of society. Sixth, ensure that public spaces are safe for girls and women. This includes good lighting in public places, safe modes of public transportation, and effective police patrol and enforcement.
But most importantly the pervasive issue of the subjugation of women needs to be more rigorously addressed. Until we tackle the much deeper social issues that hold girls and women back we will not make inroads on reducing child marriage. Until men, whether fathers, husbands, religious leaders, policy makers or community leaders, value women and understand that women should have equal rights and equal opportunities, nothing will change. They need to understand that educating a girl positively impacts the wellbeing of their community and nation. The more we invest in women and girls, the healthier our societies will be.
Ending child marriage fulfills most of the principles of the post-2015 development framework. Human rights, poverty eradication, gender equity, social justice - all of these values and principles are addressed by ending child marriage. There is urgency to act on this.
1 Solutions to End Child Marriage http://www.icrw.org/publications/solutions-end-child-marriage-0
2 Karei, EM and AS Erulkar. 2010. Building Programs to Address Child Marriage: The Berhane Hewan Experience in Ethiopia. Washington, DC: Population Council.
3 Baird, S., et al. 2009. The Short-‐Term Impacts of a Schooling Conditional Cash Transfer Program on the Sexual Behavior of Young Women, in World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 5089. The World Bank: Washington, DC.