Girls Not Brides

by: Sarah Kess

July 31, 2012

Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls it “a practice that robs millions of girls of their childhood, their rights and their dignity.” Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson says it’s an issue about the “squandered potential of hundreds of millions of girls and the women they become.”

Tutu and Robinson are among those hoping to bring an end to child marriage, an issue long classified as a violation of human rights. Defined as the marriage of a child, most often girls, under the age of 18, child marriage prevents girls from obtaining an education, developing normative social skills, and ultimately contributes to a host of debilitating, and often deadly, health risks.

As members of The Elders, an independent group of ten global leaders who work together for peace and human rights, Tutu and Robinson are part of an initiative to end child marriage. Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage seeks to bring together community organizations, international agencies, and governments in an effort to eradicate the practice.

If present trends continue, the International Center for Research on Women predicts that 100 million girls will marry over the next decade. Child marriage is an epidemic in countries like Bangladesh, Mali, Mozambique, Nepal and Niger—countries where over fifty percent of girls are married before age 18.

Because girls are seen as costly to feed, clothe, and educate, early marriage is considered financially beneficial to families. Early marriage is also seen as a protection against premarital sex, unintended pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases; in actuality, child brides face a much higher risk of contracting HIV and STDs, as they often marry older men with sexual experience.

The statistics on maternal mortality for child brides point to an even larger problem. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for women aged 15-19, according to a recent UNICEF report. Girls between the ages of 15-19 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy as women in their twenties. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die during childbirth.

Though laws prohibiting child marriage exist in many countries, such laws are seldom enforced.

“I’m going to be as committed to ending child marriage as I was to ending apartheid,” Archbishop Tutu has said.

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