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Let girls be girls

United Nations Population Fund - Wed, 24 Apr 2013 10:00 GMT
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Krishna, married at 11 and now 14, speaks to a relative holding her 4-month-old baby Alok at her house in a village in India's Rajasthan state, January 21, 2013. Picture REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
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On Wednesday, 17 April, my attention was drawn to a very tragic story in the Times of India, under the headline, “Early motherhood forcing young brides to bury aspirations.” It is about an 18-year-old girl who killed her two-day-old son in India as she feared that motherhood might end her dreams of pursuing education. The story filled me with even stronger resolve to speak up on this issue.

It also reminded me of another story, in Kabul, where 15-year-old Freshta escaped marriage to a man more than twice her age. "I am educated, that is why I could refuse my parents' decision. But my sister is only 13 years old, and they will marry her to an old man," said Freshta with tears in her eyes, worrying about the fate of her sister. Freshta is living at a secret shelter for women in Kabul; a place she was referred to by the police after being beaten by her family and expelled from home for rebelling against her family's wishes.

Afghan law forbids marriage below the age of 16, but many girls end up being married even at 13. Getting reliable data on child marriages is difficult, but estimates show that about 40 percent of Afghani women are married by the age of 18.

Harmful practices such as child marriage are not a challenge only in Afghanistan. Overall, one in three girls in most low- and middle-income countries will marry before the age of 18 and one in nine girls will marry before 15. This amounts to 14.2 million child marriages each year or 39,000 girls married each day before their 18th birthday. Child marriage is prevalent primarily in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but it also takes place in several countries in Latin America, the Middle East and eastern Europe. Girls living in poverty and in rural areas face a higher risk of being married at an early age, and girls in humanitarian crises are particularly vulnerable.

Child marriage can also have fatal health consequences for young girls. When married, girls are often expected to prove their fertility by getting pregnant. Each year, 16 million girls aged 15-19 give birth, 90 percent of them within marriage. However, girls are often not fully developed physiologically and for many reasons face barriers in seeking timely, appropriate care, putting them at an increased risk of experiencing complications during pregnancy or delivery.

Such complications can result in death or in long-term illnesses and injuries including obstetric fistula—a childbirth injury that results in a tear between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum, causing the girl to leak urine and/or human waste.  About 300 million girls and women are living today with maternal illnesses and injuries.

Moreover, the married girls are often taken out of school and have very limited life opportunities. Meanwhile, girls who are able to finish school and maybe even to get a secondary education have much better possibilities to earn a living, to decide themselves when and whom to marry, when to become mothers, to invest in their children’s future and ultimately to help themselves and their families out of poverty. This will ultimately contribute to the prosperity of their communities and countries.

Preventing child marriage will also help reduce the risk of girls being subjected to violence and social isolation, which is often a result of young girls marrying into families they don’t know. Hence, the prevention of child marriage has manifold benefits for girls’ well-being, health, education, childhood and their basic rights to determine their own future.

UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, together with its partners, works to end child marriage and other harmful practices, including gender-biased sex selection and female genital mutilation/cutting. In addition to being a goal in itself, this is also an important first step towards enabling girls to realize their full potential, educate themselves, contribute more to the labour market and, eventually, to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty for their own sake, as well as for their communities’ and countries’ development.

UNFPA supports national governments and civil society in improving and enforcing national legislation against child marriage and supports information-sharing with local communities on girls’ rights and the negative consequences of child marriages. We invest in programmes that create safe spaces for girls to avoid child marriage, build up their education, economic and health assets. On a global scale, UNFPA works with many governments and other partners to ensure that girls’ rights to determine their future and to obtain sexual and reproductive health are anchored strongly in the post-2015 development agenda and become a policy priority both in developing and fragile countries, such as Afghanistan.

Our hope is that, through common efforts, we can ensure that not only Freshta, but also her younger sister and all other girls in the world, can escape harmful practices and enjoy the right to be girls.

When they enjoy this right, they can consequently enjoy other human and civil rights, such as education as well as economic, social and political participation and decision-making. When they exercise all of these rights, they can fulfil their own and humanity’s potential: to eliminate poverty, eradicate maternal death and propel economic development.

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