The subject of child brides is unsurprisingly divisive. To some these children are the victims of statutory rape, girls as young as 8 who have had their fundamental human rights stripped from them. To others they are merely exercising a cultural or religious right. It is a problem, a relatively untamed one, and the subject of a growing and overdue global conversation.
In 2012, 70 million women around the world had been married before the age of 18. If existing trends continue, 150 million girls over the next decade will be married before they reach the age of 18. That’s an average of 15 million girls per year.
The very existence of child brides, where it is prevalent, is systemic and cyclical. Largely the result of traditional practices, ingrained gender roles, underage pregnancies and extreme poverty in developing nations, an average of one in three girls are married before 18. According to the Department for International Development’s Baroness Sandip Verma, who will be answering questing live on the subject of violence against women and girls on Tuesday 8 March with The Guardian, child brides are amongst the most frequent sufferers of domestic abuse and restricted access to education, with an increased chance of contracting HIV or suffering a fatal pregnancy. To put that in perspective, pregnancy and childbirth complications are among the leading causes of death in girls aged 15 to 19 in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia, where child brides are commonplace.
The difficulties in defeating such an integrated practice were highlighted this year, when a municipality in the Swedish city of Malmo agreed to approve underage marriage among refugees. However the situation has never been isolated to the developing world. Teen marriage in the U.S. increased by nearly 50% in the 1990s due in part to ‘abstinence until marriage’ sex education in schools, something that is still taught today.
This is not to say that the issue has gone unaddressed. Global rates of child marriage are slowly declining. 2015 saw a number of promising developments including Target number 5.3 of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development which calls on countries to end child, early and forced marriage by the year 2030. The first African Girls’ Summit put child marriage on Africa’s development agenda and a number of national initiatives were set in pace to raise the legal age of marriage to 18 and promote the value of increasing women’s education. On a local level, UNICEF, Promundo, Population Council and the ICRW, have conducted research to establish successful approaches capable of affecting communal attitudes towards women and child brides. These include empowering girls to help them think and act independently, educating parents, women and communities, providing economic incentives for girls or their families, and championing legislative change to ensure customary laws don’t overrule human rights laws. Education and awareness are growing, girls who complete secondary school education are six times less likely to become child brides, this is a statistic that applies globally, that can be spread, and should be championed.