“In my whole life, I never felt love,” 15-year old Mejgan told Too Young to Wed. She was a child bride, and not the only one. In fact, every minute 28 girls like Mejgan get married before the age of eighteen.
Today is International Day of the Girl and we need to talk about child marriage, which impacts girls disproportionately. Girls Not Brides, a global coalition of rights organizations, estimates that every two seconds, an under-age girl is married. Every year, approximately 15 MILLION girls are forced into marriage worldwide. This number should be a shocking wake up call.
To end child marriage, we have to first call it by name. All child marriage is forced marriage and therefore sexual slavery because children cannot consent. When girls are treated as commodities to be sold to pay off parents’ debt, seal business deals or for bad (to solve tribal disputes), a cycle of violence is created. Girls become powerless in these loveless transactions that determine their future life, including economic opportunities, and stunt their health. But more than that, child marriage robs our girls of their humanity and childhood. Girls are not cattle to be traded at whim. Rather they deserve to be valued and allowed the right to shape their own futures.
In addition to being a form of violence itself, child marriage often leads to more violence, including forced pregnancy and sexualized abuse. When children are married, they often drop out of school, which contributes to further marginalization and lack of employment opportunities later in life. In addition child marriage contributes to higher rates of infant and maternal mortality. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the second leading cause of death among 15 to 19 year olds globally, after suicide.
Child marriage is a global problem and we need a united global voice against it. This year, the shocking prevalence of child marriage in the United States of America made headlines everywhere. Despite massive progress against teen pregnancy and early marriage, the marriage of girls under the age of 18 is legal in nearly every state. New Jersey is the only state to ban marriages for anyone under the age of 18. Ten states allow girls who become pregnant to get married and others allow underage marriage with “parental consent and/or under customary law.” What is more, in the U.S. and around the world girls are often married to adult men. If the tables were turned and underage boys were married to adult women, we would all- rightly so- name these marriages what they are: legitimized pedophilia.
To tackle this issue, we need a global agreement that the marriage of girls and boys under the age of 18 must be criminalized to protect their childhood and their right to education and safety. When implemented, progressive laws can make an immense difference. For example, in the Maldives, after the minimum age of marriage was set to 18 in 2001, the percent of underage marriage of girls fell from nearly half in 1995 to just six percent in 2009. In Afghanistan where the legal age of marriage is 16 years for girls and 18 years for boys under the Civil Code, 57 percent of girls are married before reaching the age of eighteen. Changing the legal age of marriage will not end child marriage, but it will be a step in the right direction.
Ending child marriage will help us in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and raise literacy and productivity rates in our communities, but most importantly, it will ensure that our girls will have the chance to reach their full potential. Without the threat of early marriage, they will grow up knowing that we value them and honor their humanity. Even one early marriage is too many. It is time for the world to stand up and proclaim: Not tradition, not religion, not culture, not war, not poverty- nothing justifies child marriage.
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