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BANGKOK: How long has it taken you to read these words? A few seconds, most likely. A moment in your day. Yet in that moment, another girl under the age of 18 has been married. She’s had to drop out of school and focus on housework and on trying to get pregnant, long before her mind and body are ready. She’ll never work and she’ll never have the opportunity to reach for her dreams.
This is the story of 10 million girls around the world who are married before they are 18. Regionally, South Asia has the highest percentage of child marriage in the world. In Bangladesh, India and Nepal, more than half of all women 20-24 were married before they were 18, many before they were 15. Rarely do these girls give their free and full consent. But they’re expected to grow up within the constraints of traditional gender roles, playing the part of little women with big responsibilities.
When a girl gets married before she’s 18, she becomes more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth. There’s more chance she will lose her child before he or she reaches the age of five. Due to limited access to reproductive and sexual health services, there’s greater chance she develops obstetric fistula or contracts HIV. She may also be subjected to violence and abuse.
The findings in our new report on child marriage in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, researched by the International Center for Research on Women, should serve as a stark reminder of how bad the situation is in South Asia. Today we're sharing our findings at a side event we're co-organising at the 57th annual Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations in New York. It's a chance for representatives from Member States to put their heads together and look at what we need to do to take gender equality to the next level.
So what can we say about child marriage? We know what the causes are – poverty, traditional beliefs, stereotypes – but we also know what the solutions are and what the next steps need to be if we are to eradicate the practice.
The first step is to ensure all girls can get a quality secondary education. Keeping girls in school delays the age of marriage. When a girl is educated, she can change the lives of herself, her family and her community. She is better prepared to make informed decisions. She can work and earn a living to support her family.
Every effort needs to be made to ensure that education for girls is a priority in developing countries. Financial support for secondary education of girls should be universal so that girls don’t drop out of school due to poverty. At the same time, parents must be motivated to want to put their daughters through school.
There needs to be greater awareness of the negative consequences of child marriage. People ought to know the cold, hard truth about what is happening to girls in their country. Stronger implementation of laws – including greater penalisation of those adults who marry girls under 18 – is essential.
Child marriage is illegal in most countries. It’s outlawed in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. Yet it still happens – on a daily basis. If the law isn’t upheld, there’s no solid foundation on which to build our efforts to stamp out this practice. Governments take note: we need your help on this one.
In the mean time, we’ll continue to advocate for laws to mean something while working on the ground with local children’s groups, mostly set up through schools, across South Asia. Through these groups, girls and boys learn about the consequences of issues like child marriage and then impart their knowledge to their friends, neighbours and parents. Participation in these activities teaches children about their rights and how to negotiate with adults.
It’s this negotiation, this communicating with clarity, that we want to see more of across all parts of society. Parents are persuaded and influenced by youths who are able to articulate their views on marriage and education. If we work with these young women and men, we can support them to engage with people in a non-confrontational manner that gets the message across without ruffling too many feathers.
We aren’t here to tell you that this battle against child marriage is going to be easy. It’s been extremely difficult up until now, but we are seeing progress. Parents and girls are increasingly seeing the value in education and how a little schooling can go a long way to increasing quality of life. When girls and their parents can see a bigger picture, and see role models – women who have carved out roles for themselves that go beyond marriage and motherhood – they are more likely to actively seek out those opportunities.
Since 2010, we’ve been working on something called the Asia Child Marriage Initiative, through which we aim to prevent child marriage and mitigate its negative consequences on children, families and communities. Our new report was compiled as part of this initiative to give us a better understanding of where we’re at in Asia. To support the course, please join us (@PlanAsia) on Twitter with the hashtag #endchildmarriage and lend your voice to ours to help us make as much noise as possible.
Tanushree Soni is Plan International's Regional Gender Programme Specialist in Asia.