We believe that an adolescent girl living in poverty is the most powerful person in the world. If we reach her early enough, she can accelerate economies, arrest major global health issues and break cycles of poverty.
When a girl gets a chance to stay in school, remain healthy, gain skills, she will marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and earn an income that she’ll invest back into her family. When she can grow into a woman and become an educated mother, an economic actor, an ambitious entrepreneur, or a prepared employee, she breaks the cycle of poverty. She and everyone around her benefits. That’s the girl effect – the powerful social and economic change brought about when girls have the opportunity to participate.
Child marriage is one of the barriers preventing the 600 million adolescent girls in developing countries from unleashing their full potential. The numbers speak clearly: one girl in seven in developing countries marries before age 15, and nearly half of all girls are expected to marry by age 20. Early marriage is most common in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where in 15 countries almost half of all girls are married before age 18.
Child marriage is not only a violation of human rights, but it also has serious consequences for national development, ultimately stunting educational and vocational opportunities for a large sector of the population and for the future generations.
Considerable evidence points to the negative impact of child marriage on girls, their children and their communities: child marriage often results in heightened vulnerability of girls to physical, sexual, psychological and economic abuse; increased rates of school dropout; early childbirth, which many times leads to poor health outcomes for both mother and child or even death, with pregnancy-related complications representing the leading cause of death among girls 15-19; increased risk of HIV transmission to married girls.
Consequently, interventions designed to specifically address child marriage actually impact a broader number of outcomes – health, education and economic empowerment. At the same time, programs focusing on providing safe spaces and putting assets in girls’ hands have shown to have a strong impact on delaying child marriage as well. In fact, when a girls has assets – and we are not talking massive resources, but simple things like a social network, specific skills, some knowledge, self-esteem, personal security… – if she has these resources to tap into, she then has a much greater chance of staying on course and not only delaying marriage but also positively impacting her overall future and the futures of her siblings. She becomes a hugely powerful agent of change.
Addressing child marriage also requires appropriate laws to be created and enforced, particularly at the sub-national level, and changes in social norms and attitudes to be fostered through innovative programs.
But ultimately, eliminating child marriage is possible. We’ve seen it. Berhane Hewan, a program implemented by the Government of Ethiopia with support from UNFPA and the Population Council to prevent child marriage in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia has shown incredible changes in marriage age in relatively short periods of time.
Investing in adolescent girls and placing them at the center of international and national action is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do. The truth is, adolescent girls will either accelerate growth or perpetuate poverty. It all depends on where we choose to invest existing resources.
Editor’s note: Today, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission will hold a hearing in the House of Representatives on the causes and consequences of child marriage, focusing on actions governments, nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies can take to end the harmful practice. Stay tuned for updates and highlights from the hearing.