When I envision positive opportunities for girls and young women, I think about family-supported schooling past the equivalent of grade 8. I imagine local clinics and helpful, trustworthy nurses and doctors. I dream about sexual education, protection and prevention. With help from these resources, I hope for healthy, self-assured and happy girls and young women all around the world. I believe that growing up with access to health and education should not be a luxury, nor should being able to pass from childhood to adolescence to adulthood safely. But when I come across information which states that an estimated 19 girls under the age of 18 are married every minute around the world, it seems that girls’ access to basic human rights are in actuality, a privilege rather than a vital norm.
Child marriage presents advocates and activists alike with a tricky and complex task. The motivation behind the custom is often a result of cultural traditions steeped in issues of poverty and development, such that the cause of child marriage stems from various aspects of society. When a dangerous practice such as this becomes so commonly ingrained, it becomes difficult to determine how to stop it. However, a newly announced initiative is determined to do just that.
Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage is a recently launched organization which is receiving a lot of media attention for its mission to help eradicate the practice of child marriage in all regions of the world, from the Americas, South Asia and the Middle East to Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. According to the organization, one in three girls is married before the age of 18 in the developing world, and one in seven girls is married before the age of fifteen. The initiative sights problems such as poverty, tradition, gender roles and security as reasons why the custom continues to be prevalent. Yet, while Girls Not Brides acknowledges that a variety of topics informs the practice, the organization places particular emphasis on the girls and young women whose welfare is sacrificed as soon as they are forced to marry. To this point Mary Robinson, a founding member of the organization and a representative of The Elders (a group of global leaders spear-headed by Nelson Mandela) asserts:
“This harmful practice contributes significantly to core development challenges – poverty, education, maternal and child health, HIV and gender equality. Yet, disturbingly, it has remained on the sidelines of mainstream development debate. That can’t be allowed to continue, because, beyond the numbers, this is about the human rights and squandered potential of hundreds of millions of girls and the women they become.”
Though child marriage reveals more about a developing society than what the act expresses, this is ultimately a gendered issue that severely disadvantages and stratifies girls. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another prominent member of the organization and chairman of The Elders called attention to the role of men in helping and sustaining the effort to end child marriage:
“In many ways, this is a problem aided and abetted by men. Men tend to be the political leaders and tend to be the traditional leaders and tend to be the religious leaders and tend to give the lead, and if this group of leaders said this is not something we condone, then communities will begin to think differently.”
If girls and young women were not forced into marriage, they could stay in school longer and marry at a later, safer, healthier age. They would then be less vulnerable to illnesses which result from unsafe sexual practices, such as HIV. They would also be less likely to die from childbirth-related complications. Girls would have more control over their bodies, how many children they wanted to have, and their children would be healthier too. Girls would be safer and less likely to suffer domestic and sexual violence. Subsequently, girls and young women would be able to develop, do, accomplish, achieve and fulfill more.
In order to succeed in their efforts, Girls Not Brides channels the adage that there is “power in numbers” by bringing together multiple organizations to better address issues of child marriage all over the world. The initiative suggests that empowering girls through schooling and support programs as well as becoming involved with families and active in communities will help to abate the practice of child marriage on a local scale. On a macro level, the organization seeks to support and bolster policies and legislation that will both politically and legally challenge the practice of child marriage to the extent that it will no longer be possible—such as instating a legal minimum age of marriage.
As Desmond Tutu similarly describes in the promotional video below, women are often the backbone of society. As such, there needs to be a more powerful initiative to support and protect the girls and adolescents who will one day grow up to be women. No one suffers from an educated, economically literate and secure, confident woman. In fact, I am willing to say that society as a whole would improve if we could create and maintain more beneficial, healthy opportunities for girls and young women. Stopping child marriage is just one of the ways to better the lives of girls and the world at large.