When I tell my students that girls in ancient Greece and Rome were usually married at the age of 13 to men often twice their age if not older, the response is looks and expressions of horror. But even more shocking is that in the next decade, by 2020, 50 million girls under the age of 15 will be married, says the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Indeed, if this trend continues, there will be 100 million child brides by 2030.
So much for progress.
Child marriage is one the greatest challenges facing girls’ development and experts are highlighting this harsh fact as of part of today’s Day of the Girl. In the Independent, the UNFPA’s director, Babatunde Osotimehin, describes the tragedy of child marriage, of children who become mothers while still themselves children:
This is the marrying off of children who don’t even understand what it is to be married or to be an adult. Girls are being robbed of their childhood. They have babies before they are ready, and we see intergenerational poverty. We need to stop this vicious cycle.
As UNICEF’s senior child protection specialist, Francesca Moneti, underscores, child marriage can itself be an “extreme crisis mechanism” triggered by a food crisis. It can lead to a “chronic situation of malnutrition,” in which undernourished children themselves give birth to babies of low birth weight. Among girls aged 15-19, pregnancy causes 50,000 deaths in the developing world and is indeed their “biggest killer,” the Independent also says.
Five more troubling facts about child marriage:
1. One-third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 years old, according to UNICEF. 10 percent of these girls are not even fifteen years old.
2. Married girls are more likely to drop out of school and to be subjected to violence and abuse.
3. Almost one in three children in Bangladesh marry before they turn 15 years old.
4. More than 700 girls younger than 10 were married in 2010 in Iran. This figure is said to have increased by more than a third each year since.
5. 46 percent of girls in South Asia marry before the age of 18; 37 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa; 29 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Child marriage deprives girls of the chance for an education and for improving their economic circumstances. Only 74 percent of girls aged 11 to 15 are in school, in contrast to 83 percent of boys; more than a third of girls leave school after only the primary years, says a new report by Plan, Because I Am a Girl. On this Day of the Girl, the UNFPA is pledging an additional $20 million to help those most vulnerable girls in twelve countries with high rates of child marriage including Guatemala, India, Niger and Zambia. Ensuring they have a quality education and that they can stay in school is key.
The UNFPA and the Independent offer chilling stories of girls married so young that they mistakenly thought their wedding ceremony was a game. The night before their weddings, ancient Roman girls would dedicate their dolls to the Lares, household spirits. In the cases of today’s child brides, too many girls become wives and mothers long before they are ready to put aside their toys, their childhood and a better future.
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