Child brides need world to intervene

Posted: April 24, 2011

Kathy Calvin

is chief executive officer

of the U.N. Foundation

Judith Bruce

is a senior associate and policy analyst with the Population Council

The words child and marriage individually evoke emotions of joy and celebration, but the combination of these words spells the destruction of them both.

One in seven girls in developing countries (excluding China) is married before her 15th birthday.

Once married, these girls, like those who are trafficked or inducted into domestic service, become members of a tribe of "lost girls" - robbed of their childhood and, in many cases, their future. Right now, this tribe has 60 million members from Nepal, Afghanistan, and West Africa to Latin America. If trends continue, more than 100 million girls will become child brides in the next decade - about 25,000 girls married each day over the next 10 years.

The girls' lives - and bodies - are completely appropriated by others for uncompensated labor, unprotected and coercive sexual activity, and production of children. Dehumanized and treated as property, child brides are often forced to work and serve others under threat of mental and physical punishment.

Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later. A study by the International Council for Research, in two states in India, found that girl brides were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later.

Child marriage is probably the most common, socially approved human-rights abuse in the world - an abuse that directly causes higher-than-necessary maternal mortality, infant mortality, intergenerational poverty, and increasingly the spread of HIV.

Children who start having children run serious health risks. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Medical complications due to pregnancy are the leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide. They also tend to have more children, which often spirals the next generation into even deeper poverty.

U.N. data from 100 countries show that girls in the poorest 20 percent of households are more likely to get married at an earlier age than those in the wealthiest 20 percent. More than half the girls in Bangladesh, Mali, Mozambique, and Niger are married before 18. In these same countries, more than 75 percent of people live on less than $2 a day.

Child marriages can be stopped. In fact, developing nations are taking great measures to combat the practice by changing laws and enforcing existing ones. But international pressure is necessary to make greater and faster strides. And hundreds of thousands of U.S. teens have already joined a movement to support their peers. The U.N. Foundation's Girl Up campaign connects girls in this country with girls in developing countries to raise awareness and money for U.N. programs that help adolescent girls facing difficult issues such as child marriage.

Over the next few weeks, thousands of these girls will be signing a petition encouraging policymakers in Washington to support girls everywhere by stating that child marriage is unacceptable and unfair and must be stopped. By taking this action, these girls are focusing global attention on an issue we all too often ignore.

Child brides are modern-day slaves. It's up to us to make sure that their chains are broken and that their voices are finally heard.

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