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Let Girls Be Girls

Updated on February 8, 2014

Let girls be girls

Child marriage undermines global development efforts focused on creating more educated, healthier and economically stable populations. In other words, the abolition of such a practice would have benefits throughout the world. One third of the world’s girls are married before the age of 18, and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15 according to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). While the practice has decreased globally over the last 30 years, it remains persistent in poorest and most rural regions.

The consequences of marrying at an adolescent age stretch beyond a problem of domestic violence and emotional distress. According to the ICRW, girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth, than women in their 20s. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for girls ages 15. Mortality rates for babies born to mothers under age 20 are almost 75% higher than for children born to older mothers. These statistics are a gross realization of the consequences of child marriage. Even children who survive being born to a pubescent mother, are more likely to be premature, have a low birth weight, and are more at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS. Without going into graphic detail, mothers who develop severe or debilitating health conditions are often abandoned by their husbands and ostracized by society. ICRW reported that in 2013, approximately 2 million girls living with fistula, and 100,000 new cases every year.

So what are some root causes of child marriage and what is happening to instigate change? Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to marry before the age of 18, than girls in higher income households. More than half of the girls in Bangladesh, Mali, Mozambique and Niger are married before age 18. It is no coincidences that in these countries, more than 75 percent of people live on less than two dollars a day. Poverty, minimal education, in addition to dowry’s (money or property that a wife or wife's family gives to her husband when the wife and husband marry in some cultures), and traditional notions of investing in multiple children to sustain you in your older age lead to child marriages continued practice.

At the forefront of the fight against child marriage lies education, both for men and girls. Community leaders, elders and religious figures must understand the plight of a girl being married before she is ready, and its severely negative consequences. Girls with higher levels of schooling are less likely to marry as children. In Mozambique, some 60 percent of girls with no education are married by 18, compared to 10 percent of girls with secondary schooling and less than one percent of girls with higher education. Educating adolescent girls has been a critical factor in increasing the age of marriage in a number of developing countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand. Education can help to counterbalance against archaic religions and cultural practices. Again, none of this will happen unless the male figures in these societies are educated on the practice, for they typically have the final say. In 2012, the United States Senate passed the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (S.414). The bill was passed unanimously by voice vote, demonstrating strong bipartisan support for an end to child marriage, a practice that denies 14 million girls a year their rights to health, education and security. Girls Not Brides is a new global partnership committed to ending the harmful traditional practice of child marriage, they have found that when a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries on average four years later. Empowering girls, by offering them opportunities to gain skills and education, providing support networks and creating ‘safe spaces’ where girls can gather and meet outside the home, can help girls to assert their right to choose when they marry.

Gaining the understanding and educating both the men in these regions as well as the girls is pivotal. The reality remains these numbers are dwindling and this practice will only continue to be ostracized. Through the voices of global initiatives, and local legislation one can only be sure the day will come when girls are assured to be girls, and not wives.

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