Child marriage, a marriage where one or both of the parties are under the age of eighteen, is a violation of human rights, yet it happens every day around the world, across religions and cultures. The numbers are sobering, one in three girls in the developing world will be married before she turns eighteen and one in seven before she turns fifteen. Everyday 13,000 girls under the age of fifteen are married, some as young as eight or nine. This translates into nearly five million girls under the age of fifteen being married every year. Experts predict that if the current trend continues by 2020 fifty million girls will be married before they turn fifteen. That means fifty million girls will be married against their will and have their childhoods cut short.
According to a new report by the Council on Foreign Relations, not only is child marriage a violation of human rights it also has major implications for U.S. foreign aid and policy. The report argues that “this tradition traps girls and their children in a cycle of poor health, illiteracy, poverty, and violence that has consequences for development, prosperity, and stability. As such, child marriage undermines U.S. aid investments and foreign policy objectives around the world.” The report argues that child marriage undermines U.S. interests and investments in four main areas: health, education, economic development, and stability.
The Obama administration has made global health, including maternal and child health and family planning a priority. Unfortunately investments in these areas are being undermined by the practice of child marriage. When girls marry young they are unable to negotiate safe sexual behaviors and are at an increased risk for HIV and other STIs, and are often unable to access contraception resulting in early childbearing. Bearing children at such an early age puts their lives in danger. Girls between the ages of fifteen to nineteen are twice as likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause as girls in their twenties, and girls under fifteen are five times more likely to die in childbirth. This leads to the shocking fact that complications from pregnancy and childbirth is the leading cause of death for girls between age fifteen and nineteen in the developing world. Not only is the mother’s health in danger; so is the child’s. Stillbirths and infant mortality are fifty percent more likely when the mother is less than twenty years old.
Child marriage also undermines education and economic development. Girls’ education is one of the most important drivers of economic development. When girls stay in school they tend to marry later and have smaller, healthier families. However when girls are forced to marry early they are often pulled out of school limiting the girl’s economic potential. It perpetuates the cycle of poverty by keeping the girl illiterate and preventing her from competing in the job market later in life.
Finally, the report highlights how child marriage is undermining U.S. investments in health and stability. Girls who are married as child brides are more likely to experience domestic and sexual violence, and research suggests that violence against women and girls is correlated with civil strife and conflict. Not surprisingly perhaps, child marriage is often prevalent in fragile states.
Looking at the way child marriage undercuts U.S. investments in health, education, economic development, and stability the Council on Foreign Relations report concludes that:
“In this time of austerity, policymakers should recognize that addressing child marriage is not only a moral imperative—it is also a cost-effective and strategic imperative to achieve the United States’ diplomatic and development goals. The reach and success of U.S. efforts to improve global health, bolster education, foster economic growth, and promote stability and the rule of law will grow stronger if this persistent practice comes to an end.”
It is time to speak out in defense of the five million girls under fifteen who will otherwise be married this year. They should be allowed to be girls, not brides. It’s time to make child marriage history.
Posted by Jennie Wetter, Director of Public Policy