Curbing Child Marriages: Supporting the Rights of Girls

May 11th, 2012 | By | Category: Family Planning

By Suzanne York, May 11, 2012

Photo credit: Fernando Zarur

If you think there is one issue that could gain bi-partisan support in the U.S. Congress, ending child marriage would likely be near the top of the list. Not only would a little bi-partisanship be good for the country, but preventing girls from marrying too young would improve lives.

There is currently legislation in both houses of the U.S. Congress to condemn child marriage as both a human rights violation and a negative impact on developmental outcomes: Child Marriage Violates the Human Rights of Girls Act of 2011 (H.R. 3357) and the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (S. 414).

Here are a few disturbing facts on child marriage:

  • in the past decade, 58 million young women in developing countries have been married before the age of 18;
  • 1 in 9 girls (15 million) have been forced into marriage between the ages of 10 and 14;
  • in Niger, 75 percent of girls marry before 18;
  • childbirth complications are the leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 in developing countries.

(source: Population Reference Bureau)

Not encouraging statistics, and a reason why the U.S. and countries around the world should support legislation and policies that build a positive future for young girls.

The reasons behind child marriages are varied. Despite laws in most nations declaring 18 as the minimum legal age for marriage, there are loopholes, lax implementation, and other ways to get around this. Other factors include the recurring feedback interaction between early marriage, lack of education, poverty, as well as culture.

In a recent conference call about child marriage, hosted by Friends of the UNFPA, Sylvia Wong discussed initiatives being undertaken to curb this practice – providing some signs of hope.

Ms. Wong, a technical specialist on adolescents and youth with the UNFPA, talked about some of the organization’s programs working to reduce child marriage. In Ethiopia, they work with parliamentarians to ensure that laws are enforced, and advocate with decision-makers on the dangers of child marriage. Perhaps most importantly, UNFPA officials work with communities to aid understanding of this practice and how it undermines family well-being. And supporting “community conversations” can change mind-sets, keep girls in school, build skills, create safe spaces, and provide education on sexual and reproductive health.

In Malawi, where in one province 50 percent of girls are married by age 18, the UNFPA is undertaking multiple approaches: using incentives such as fellowships to keep girls in school; providing counseling and access to health services to young women, especially on contraceptives; building programs that create safe spaces from sexual violence and exploitation and ways to avoid it; family level intervention (ie, educating parents); and using “girl guides” who interface with their peers on the dangers of child marriage.

Officials are starting to see reductions in early marriage for girls, but the challenge is steep, as the scale and scope of this issue is so big. What is really needed, according to Ms. Wong, beyond investment in educational programs and health care services, is promoting best practices and improvements at the community level, and government support.

It is also important to keep in mind that cultural dynamics are fluid and can change very quickly. Positive interventions can create positive change.

This is a human rights issue. Girls should be allowed to become fully productive members of their society. In the words of Valerie DeFillipo, president of Friends for UNFPA, “it is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do to achieve prosperity.”

Take action! What Can You Do to End Child Marriage?

  • Urge your congressional representative to support legislation to end child marriages and improve girls’ rights – in the Senate, support S. 414 (it currently has 35 co-sponsors) and in the House H.R. 3357 (which has 58 co-sponsors). For more information and to contact your representative, go to Friends of UNFPA’s Take Action webpage.
  • Also ask your congress person to support international family planning efforts, especially increased funding for UNFPA.
  • Become educated and involved with organizations like the Institute for Population Studies which promote women’s and girl’s empowerment, family planning, and reproductive health.

Suzanne York is a Senior Writer with the Institute for Population Studies,

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