To be a happy child. To be part of a family that lives in harmony and domestic peace. To be a parent who has full capacity and knowledge to raise his or her children to have healthy fulfilling lives, free from violence. To be surrounded by a strong and peaceful community.
These are common aspirations of people, in all countries. But when children marry as children, and when they have children while they are still children these aspirations become difficult to attain.
In the worst of cases, a girl who becomes pregnant when her body is not yet ready may die in childbirth. Her baby may also not survive: a double tragedy. And there are many other negative effects that may go unnoticed. Girls that marry as children will most likely not go to school. Their future will be short-changed as will the future of their communities. Girls may be subjected to violence or abuse, including unwanted sexual relations, and not be able to defend themselves. They may suffer from isolation or depression. Children born to child mothers may not receive adequate care and nurturing.
It cannot take the death of a girl in a community, as in the video below produced by UNICEF Chad, to generate discussions about the benefits of delaying marriage and to follow a different path.
About the video: As one of the most influential figures in electronic music today UNICEF approached RL Grime to amplify the message that child marriage must end. The video concept was developed with UNICEF Chad and shot in Moundou, Chad. Almost 7 out of 10 girls in Chad are married before their 18th birthday.
What kind of progress is being made?
We are seeing progress toward ending child marriage, but it is insufficient. Currently, there are 720 million women and 156 million men who were married before their 18th birthday. Of these, approximately 250 million girls married before they reached age 15. If current trends of the prevalence of child marriage and of demographic growth continue, in the next 30 years there will essentially be no decrease in the number women and men who marry as children.
The problem seems somewhat overwhelming, especially given that in nine countries the majority of girls are marrying as children, but also in view of a dozen additional countries where prevalence rates of child marriage exceed 40%. But we do have reason for some optimism.
From South Asia to Africa, which have the countries where child marriage is most practiced, more and more families and communities are delaying marriage and enhancing opportunities for girls. A growing number of civil society organizations, national governments and development partners are supporting their efforts and creating better conditions to end the practice.
In addition, positive developments in 2014 included:
- the first resolutions on ending child marriage adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council;
- the launch of the Campaign to End Child Marriage by the African Union, with a focus on strengthening families and communities;
- the first ever Girl Summit, focussing on ending female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage in London;
- the significant growth in the number of civil society organizations that are members of the Girls Not Brides Partnership – now more than 400; and
- the increased action by UNICEF and UNFPA, with multiple partners, through a new global programme to accelerate action to end child marriage.
How can we accelerate the progress?
To speed up the pace of progress we need an increase in investments that provide quality services to girls and expand the opportunities for their future. For example, access to quality primary and secondary education is central. Quality education opens the way for girls to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Also, when girls are in school, they are often not perceived as available for marriage. Communities also need more opportunities to access key information and services of quality, especially health and reproductive health. Child protection services, as well as support for improved water and hygiene, will also need to expand.
To accelerate progress we also need to give resonance and visibility to the increasing number of individuals, families and communities that are delaying marriage and voicing their support for ending child marriage. Traditional and modern communication channels – from local theatre to radio – can stimulate discussion on the benefits of ending child marriage. They can also give voice to influential individuals and communities who have chosen to end the practice.
National governments and civil society organizations, including religious groups, can both support this process and themselves stimulate the conversations. The more it becomes evident that families are waiting until the girls – and boys – reach adulthood before marriage, the more those who are still supporting child marriage will question the practice.
Ending child marriage and strengthening families and communities is possible. But it requires a stronger effort, in partnership, that will make a direct difference to children – especially girls. Working together, building on progress to date, we can make that difference – without any more girls dying to bring the needed attention and action.
Francesca Moneti is Senior Child Protection Specialist, in UNICEF HQ, responsible for policy and programme development on social norms and gender equality, particularly as it relates to preventing and addressing violence against children, and with specific focus on female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage.