Home > Articles > 51% Show # 1181 (3-1-2012)

51% Show # 1181 (3-1-2012)


Children rely on adults to protect them. They are, essentially defenseless. But in many parts of the world, young girls are forced into marriage, into servitude, into what is essentially sexual slavery. Every year, all over the world, a mind-blowing ten million girls are forcibly married before the age of eighteen, many as young as twelve or thirteen years old. That is something like 25,000 girls a day. These young girls are the victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and they die in childbirth far more often than older women. The epidemic of child marriage has mostly received little attention and continues unabated year after year. Now there’s an organized effort to end the practice of child marriages in just one generation. The Elders, a group of global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007, has launched an ambitious international campaign called Girls Not Brides which harnesses the collective efforts and wisdom of 80 organizations from around the world to tackle child marriage at grassroots, national and global levels.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a member of the Elders who recently spoke about the issue at the World Economic Forum in Davos, says that while child marriage has been somewhat marginalized as a women’s rights issue, it is a human rights issue with many implications for girls and their communities. He witnessed the repercussions firsthand when he travelled to the Amhara region of Ethiopia last year, where he says he met girls who were forcibly married as young as eight years old. He told me, “It’s one thing to hear experts talking about child marriage, but it’s quite another to meet these girls and hear their stories. You realize this affects every aspect of their lives: they leave school before they can complete their education; their young bodies bear children before they are physically ready to do so; they’re unable to negotiate safe sexual practices with their older husbands. They really are some of the most vulnerable and voiceless people on earth.”

In places like India, home to one third of the world’s child brides, this is not just a human rights issue, but a development issue as well. The benefits of delaying marriage for girls are felt community-wide, since when girls stay in school, they gain the opportunity to learn skills that better equip them to work and contribute economically to their families and community.

This isn’t just about tradition – parents often marry off their young daughters in an attempt to protect them. Many parents marry off their daughters to ensure her safety in areas where girls are at high risk of physical or sexual assault or because they are living in such extreme poverty they simply can’t afford to feed her. Impoverished families offer their daughters for marriage because of the substantial bride price that she can fetch or to pay off a debt. In many communities where child marriage is practiced, girls are simply not valued as much as boys – they are often seen as a burden. The challenge is to change parents’ attitudes and emphasize that girls who avoid early marriage and stay in school will be able to make a greater contribution to their family and their community in the long term.

One of the first steps towards change is for governments to show their active support at a legislative level, to enact and enforce a legal minimum age for marriage. However, legislation alone will not easily end entrenched traditional practices and the most effective efforts to end child marriage have been community education and empowerment programs that encourage dialogue among parents, religious leaders, village councils, teachers and everyone in the community. Over time they often come to a collective decision to abandon the practice.

Ultimately, the hope is that initiatives like Girls Not Brides will spark greater awareness about the injustice of the practice, inspire important changes to development policy, end outmoded traditions, and help end the suffering of millions of young girls who are deprived of their own free will over their destinies and their lives.

For more information, visit www.GirlsNotBrides.org.

This commentary originally aired on 51% Show # 1181 (3-1-2012)