With their boundless potential, adolescent girls can be many things—but being a bride against their will should not be one of them. Adolescence is a time of learning, self-discovery, socialization, maturation, and fun. For the world’s almost 70 million child brides, adolescence is marked by gender-based violence, dangerous pregnancies, social isolation and crushing poverty.
Child marriage is an unjust practice that limits girls’ potential. In a recent Huffington Post article, Human Rights Watch Senior Women’s Rights Researcher, Agnes Odhiambo showed the imperative need for the global community, including leaders in countries around the world, to do more to prevent and end child marriage.
Ending child marriage is a very necessary step in addressing human rights violations against women and a key element of helping nations flourish.
Currently, the number of young brides around the world is staggering. One third of the world’s girls are married before 18 and one in nine are married before they are 15.
Odhiambo offers first-hand accounts of the troubling reality for many child brides she had met, saying, “Child brides were financially dependent on often abusive spouses, in part because they lacked the education and skills to provide for themselves and their families. I heard stories about girls who were so broken by the forced marriages that they contemplated suicide.”
At the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), we have found that girls who are married before age 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence than older brides. These girls often feel hopeless and depressed which are signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress. Instead of living out their childhoods, young brides are often forced to relinquish their right to attend school and forced to take on domestic responsibilities, including raising children. When girls younger than fifteen become pregnant, they are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s — and that is just the beginning of the health risks associated with marrying young.
However, as Odhiambo notes, there is a growing momentum from community and world leaders to address this issue head on. As a member of Girls Not Brides, a global coalition to end child marriage, ICRW continues to press for more attention and resources to stop early and forced marriages, and strive to better understand and promote ways to end this problematic practice.
In 2011, ICRW reviewed programs addressing child marriage from a variety of countries and contexts. Our review led to “Solutions to End Child Marriage,” a report that identifies five strategies that demonstrate promise in delaying or preventing child marriage.
The report showed that most typically utilized strategies to delay or prevent child marriage were:
- empowering girls with information
- skills and support networks
- educating and uniting parents and community members
- improving girls’ access to a high-quality education
- providing economic support
- incentives to girls and their families
- enacting supportive laws and policies.
Understanding the local context and employing a combination of these approaches are critical elements of successful programs. The core of these strategies is instilling an understanding that child marriage is a harmful practice for girls, as well as to communities as a whole.
Education is Key
Efforts to educate girls, parents and community members about the dangers of child marriage and the benefits of avoiding the practice show promise in reducing the number of child brides. For example, we found that encouraging girls to stay in school through providing them or their families with incentives to do so was a particularly effective way to delay and prevent child marriage. Education also provides girls with the ability to not only advocate against forced marriage, but also allows girls to demonstrate their societal value outside of the domestic sphere. What we know provides us with a great starting point, but it is only the beginning.
Child marriage is an egregious human rights violation, and eliminating the practice should not only the responsibility of each country, but the priority of our world leaders moving forward.
As the international community prepares a global development agenda that will guide us for the next 15 years, there is no better time to step up our conversations and our actions for women and girls.