We are fooling ourselves if we think that we can improve the lives of the world’s poorest people without talking about the harmful traditional practices that still affect millions of girls and women.
As long-standing advocates for equality, we naturally welcome the investments being made in women’s health, girls’ education and women’s economic empowerment programs.
But we also have to ask why, despite these investments, progress is so slow? We believe that the reason is that development efforts do not focus sufficiently on harmful social norms and traditions.
Child marriage is precisely one of the traditions that undermine development efforts on many fronts: education, health, poverty, equality. Yet it sits on the fringes of the development debate and is rarely discussed at high levels.
Perhaps it is seen as a family matter, and therefore private. Perhaps it is because child marriage is a matter of culture and tradition, in which politicians and aid agencies are reluctant to interfere. Naturally none of us wants to be accused of disrespect for ancient customs.
As members of The Elders, we recognize all these sensitivities, but we do not accept that they are reasons for silence. Child marriage is not endorsed by any religion. It is a tradition, perpetuated by poverty and dominant social norms that place value on a girl’s virtue and fertility at the expense of enabling her to develop in ways that could benefit her, her children, and her community.
We do not subscribe to the view that traditions are immutable. Traditions are made by people. And if they are harmful and have outlived their usefulness, they must change.
Child marriage is a gross violation of human rights and a major challenge to development. If world leaders meeting in New York this week want to make real progress on global liberties and the fight against poverty, they should start by talking about child marriage.
Astoundingly, each year an estimated 10 million girls worldwide are married before the age of 18. A substantial number—one in seven girls in developing countries—are married below the age of 15.
A married girl will usually drop out of school, if she attended school at all. Her life will revolve around her husband and home. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Access to health services is a factor—child marriage is most common in poor communities. But girls’ immature bodies are also much more vulnerable to birth-related injuries like obstetric fistula, and death.
Child brides are found on every continent, with the highest prevalence in Central and Western Africa, South Asia, and parts of the Middle East. Niger has the highest rate of child marriage (76 percent), while India has the largest number (more than one third of the world’s child brides).
If current rates of child marriage continue, 100 million girls will be wed in the coming decade. Excluded from education and other opportunities to develop their full potential, they and their children will be poorer as a result.
A small number of courageous organizations are beginning to engage in processes of change that are starting to deliver tangible results. In Ethiopia, locally led programs encourage everyone concerned—parents, village chiefs, religious leaders, teachers, health workers—to discuss the benefits of education and the health risks for girls in pregnancy. Concurrently, girls are offered mentoring and support through after-school clubs, and men are offered information and ideas on treating their wives as equals. In Senegal, hundreds of villages have pledged publicly to end child marriage and female genital cutting.
We believe that change can actually take place in one generation. A woman who marries at 18 or later, who is able to continue her education and develop her self-confidence and skills, is highly unlikely to marry her own daughters off very young.
The world is now blessed with the biggest generation of girls in history. By ending child marriage, we can empower these girls to fulfil their potential and help to transform communities on an unprecedented scale. We have to start by talking about it.
For more information about child marriage go to www.GirlsNotBrides.org.