The forgotten girls: By 2020 there will be 50m child brides under the age of 15

October 7, 2012

SOURCE: The Independent

This weeks international Day of the Girl offers governments, the UN, and charities an opportunity to address a shocking - and growing - trend. 

 

Credit: UN Photo/Shehzad Noorani

New international Day of the Girl seeks to increase awareness

When 12-year-old Nargis was woken up, one morning in Bangladesh, by two women she did not know, she was confused. She did not understand when they told her she would be marrying their brother in just a few weeks, or that she would be leaving her parents' home. When she became a mother two years later, losing her son after only 16 days, the pangs of fear were familiar. Now, with a frail child to bring up, she is much more resolute: "I don't think girls should marry before they're 18 years old."

Today, days before the first internationally recognised Day of the Girl, experts warn that child marriage is, without exception, the biggest challenge to girls' development. The number of girls married before the age of 15 is expected to double over the next decade, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned. By 2020, there will be around 50 million wives under the age of 15. This will pass 100 million by 2030, if current trends continue.

Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UNFPA, said the "shocking" projections were being released to call the world's attention to the scale of the problem. "We are dealing with the largest generation of young people the world has ever known," he told The Independent on Sunday. "This is the marrying off of children who don't even understand what it is to be married or to be an adult. Girls are being robbed of their childhood. They have babies before they are ready, and we see intergenerational poverty. We need to stop this vicious cycle."

Married children face multiple disadvantages

Across the developing world around one third of girls get married before 18, according to Unicef. Around 10 per cent, like Nargis, will not have even have turned 15. Marie Staunton, chief executive of the children's charity Plan UK, called child brides the "most forgotten of all the invisible girls". Married children are generally isolated, she warned, at greater risk of violence, abuse and exploitation, and more likely to drop out of education.

Nargis, who once dreamed of being a teacher, left school after the wedding, which her parents arranged. She moved in with her 15-year-old husband, to cook and clean for him and his family. Eight years later, she still lives there, with her only child, who is undernourished, because she is unable to provide the amount of breast milk that he needs. Her story is not dissimilar to the more than 10 million girls who are married off each year; her father was poor and hoped a wedding would provide security for his child.

"It was very sudden when my parents announced I was to get married. I cried, but I was eventually forced to marry. There was no way to say no," Nargis said. "On my wedding day, I didn't know what to do. Once my grandmother and sister had gone, I had to go and live with my husband. I didn't know him. That night I felt strange, and very scared.

"After the marriage, it felt like mental torture. I was silent, but my health started to break down. I gave birth to a son when I was 14 years old, but he died. Now I have a child who is a year and eight months. When I was getting married, I had five close friends. Two are still in school, but three are married. I never see them now. When I was in school and with my friends, I was very happy; I really want to go back."

Regional trends in child marriage

Bangladesh has one of the world's highest rates of child marriage - with almost one in three children marrying before they turn 15 - but the issue is a global one. Child brides are most common in South Asia, where 46 per cent get married before the age of 18, in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the figure is 37 per cent, and in Latin America and the Caribbean (29 per cent). The highest rates in Europe are found in Georgia and Turkey, where 17 per cent and 14 per cent of girls, respectively, marry before they turn 18.

In 2010 more than 700 girls younger than 10 were married in Iran, the number increasing by more than a third in a year.

For Francesca Moneti, Unicef's senior child protection specialist, child marriage is an "extreme survival mechanism" that can increase when there is an emergency, such as a food crisis. She said there was anecdotal evidence that families in Niger had turned to child marriage in larger numbers this year as one of a number of "survival strategies".

Poverty, education and health risks

She added that child marriage can contribute to a "chronic situation of malnutrition" when young, undernourished children give birth to babies that are born with low weight, creating "nutritional insufficiencies across generations". Heena, a 16-year-old girl from a family of farmers, in Nepal, was forced into a marriage last year with a man 10 years older than her, and is about to give birth. She says that when she discovered she was to wed, she cried for a year.

"Married life is very hard work. I wake early at 5.30 every morning. I have to fetch water, prepare meals, sweep, go to the farm with my mother-in-law and wash all the clothes. We live in a mud house with small areas of land to farm," she added. "I am really scared for my future. I have no way to earn a living and I am going to be raising a child in this poverty. There is no hospital nearby. I am worried about giving birth to this baby safely, but I have no choice."

She has reason to worry. Pregnancy is the biggest killer of teenage girls in the developing world, causing 50,000 deaths in the 15-19 age group each year. Girls aged between 10 and 14 are five times more likely to die during pregnancy than women aged between 20 and 24.

While politicians, charities and community workers stress that legislation is essential for reversing the upward trend in child marriage - more than 100 countries have established 18 or older as the legal minimum age for girls to marry without consent - they stress that "quality education" is one of the best ways to keep children from becoming brides. More than a third of girls in some of the most impoverished parts of the world drop out of education at the end of primary school, says a new report by Plan, Because I Am a Girl, to be released this week. Globally, only 74 per cent of girls between the ages of 11 and 15 are in school, compared with 83 per cent of boys.

The international development minister, Lynne Featherstone, said the coalition was "stepping up our support to provide education opportunities to up to a million of the world's poorest girls through the Girls Education Programme. Even a year of schooling can vastly reduce the chances of a teenage girl ending up in an early marriage."

Further information 

The full article, with further case studies is available on The Independent website.

Read the report Marrying too Young, released by UNFPA on International Day of the Girl.

This article, published by The Independent has been reproduced by PSN. Minor changes and cuts may have been made for the purpose of brevity and relevance.