Child marriage exemplifies how the world’s poorest girls bear the heaviest burden of disadvantage, especially those living in marginalized communities in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where the practice is most common.
Girls who are married have their childhoods stolen from them. I’ve seen this, and how it hurts them.
When I was growing up in Cotonou, Benin, several of my girlfriends from primary school were married at a very young age. Some I never even saw again – their married lives took them far away. Others I met up with later on, but they weren’t the same. Their joy and enthusiasm were gone. They were no longer free to act like children, but instead were forced to be grown-ups. I noticed they carried a sense of shame, a sharp awareness that they were different from the rest of us.
While there has been progress in reducing child marriage, it is uneven. Girls from the poorest households – and those living in rural areas – face twice the risk of being married before turning 18 as girls from the richest households or those living in urban areas.
With no progress, almost 950 million women will have been married as children by 2030, up from more than 700 million today. And by 2050, almost half of the world’s child brides will be African.
The costs are too high – for the girls whose rights are violated when they are married, and for the societies that need those girls to grow up into productive, empowered adults.
Married girls are among the world’s most vulnerable people. When their education is cut short, girls lose the chance to gain the skills and knowledge to secure a good job and provide for themselves and their families. They are socially isolated. As I observed among my former schoolmates who were forced to get married, the consciousness of their isolation is in itself painful.
Subordinate to their husbands and families, married girls are more vulnerable to domestic violence, and not in a position to make decisions about safe sex and family planning – which puts them at high risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and of pregnancy and childbearing before their bodies are fully mature. Already risky pregnancies become even riskier, as married girls are less likely to get adequate medical care. During delivery, mothers who are still children are at higher risk of potentially disabling complications, like obstetric fistula, and both they and their babies are more likely to die.
By robbing girls of their potential, child marriage robs families, communities and nations of the contributions these girls might have made as women. Child marriage hampers countries’ efforts to improve the health of mothers and children, fight malnutrition and keep children in school. When girls are married as children, they cannot help but pass on poverty, low education and poor health – into which they themselves have been trapped – to the next generation.
Child marriage may seem like an intractable problem. It happens because societies often place a lesser value on girls – so they don’t get the same chances as their brothers – and because poverty and other forms of disadvantage, like low levels of education, further constrain their opportunities, making marriage seem like the best option to secure a girl’s future.
But there are proven strategies that can change girls’ lives, preserve their childhoods and empower them to make better futures for themselves and their societies. These involve increasing girls’ access to education, empowering girls with knowledge and skills, educating parents and communities, increasing economic incentives and supporting families, and strengthening and enforcing laws and policies that set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both girls and boys.
Education is a critical part of the solution. Girls who have little or no education are up to six times more likely to be married as children than girls who have secondary schooling. When a girl is in school, those around her are more likely to see her as a child, rather than as a woman ready to be a wife and mother. And the experience of going to school is empowering for girls, enabling them to develop skills and knowledge, and to forge social networks that equip them to communicate and stand up for their interests. Educated girls are better able to contribute to their countries’ growth and development, and also to the prosperity and well-being of their future families.
Fifteen million girls are married as children every year, and the sheer numbers underline the importance of investing in solutions that can have an impact at scale, to speed up progress in ending the practice. Focused investments to reach and empower poor and marginalized girls through health, education, social protection and other systems can create alternative pathways for girls and their families.
No less critical is the slow, patient work of changing social norms. These kinds of long-lasting, fundamental changes come from within communities, and they depend on engaging both mothers and fathers in finding solutions that make a difference in their daughters’ lives.
When child marriage is a thing of the past, we will have put an end to an inequity that takes away girls’ fundamental rights and steals their childhoods. More girls and women will be able to make the most of their lives and give their best to their families, communities and societies – which will go a long way towards breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and strengthening communities and nations. Ending child marriage unlocks possibilities that can transform life for girls and yield benefits for us all.
Angélique Kidjo is an award-winning artist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador
>> Three posts published today – from Gordon Brown, Angelique Kidjo and Kailash Satyarthi – represent three voices included in the new edition of UNICEF’s flagship publication The State of the World’s Children. You can read further in the digital version of the publication or in a PDF of the full report.