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The numbers are truly staggering.

In 2010, there were more than 67 million women in the developing world between the ages of 20 and 24 who had been married before their 18th birthdays.

If we do nothing, another 142 million girls will face the same fate over the next decade, according to a report released today—the inaugural International Day of the Girl Child—by the UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

That’s nearly 39,000 girls a day—27 every minute—who could be robbed of a basic, fundamental human right: the right to self-determination, to choose their own destinies.

A young girl hesitates as she is readied for female circumcision.

If that were the only consequence of child marriage, it would still be a practice worth ending.

But the 76-page report, titled “Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage,” makes clear that child marriage harms not only the girls themselves but entire communities.

Child marriage is at the heart of widespread poverty. Girls who marry young are often removed from school, ruining any chance they have of bettering themselves, helping their families financially and becoming economic engines for their communities. And they’re less likely to insist that their own children attend school, further reinforcing the cycle of poverty.

Child marriage is at the heart of gender inequality and violence against women. Many of these girls will wed much older men. As children, they are physically and psychologically unprepared to assume adult roles. They may have little influence with their husbands and in-laws and don’t necessarily have the skills to argue on their own behalf—to advocate for their rights, needs and well-being. According to the report, girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic and sexual violence within their marriages.

Stephanie Sinclair/VII
A rose is held up to the face of Rokhshana Rahimi who was near death at Herat Public Hospital. Rokhshana Rahimi set herself on fire when her husband, who left her to go to Iran 14 years earlier, demanded she return to him. They were married when she was only 10. Rokhshana died in the hospital from her wounds.

Child marriage is at the heart of maternal mortality. Nearly 16 million teens give birth each year in developing countries, and roughly 90 percent of them are already married. Meanwhile, complications from pregnancy and childbirth together are the main cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 in these countries.

Child marriage is at the heart of infant mortality. Children born to teen mothers are more likely to be premature or suffer from low birth weight. And stillbirths and deaths during the first week of life are 50 percent higher among babies born to adolescents than among babies born to mothers in their 20s.

Delaying marriage resolves many of those issues. It gives girls a chance to get an education and pursue a livelihood that could benefit the greater community. It gives them an opportunity to grow up, to understand their rights and advocate for themselves, to become their spouse’s equal partner rather than his property. It gives them time to access information about sexual and reproductive health, so they can not only protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections but also make informed decisions about when to have children and how many children to have. It means that when they have children of their own, they won’t still be children themselves.

Stephanie Sinclair/VII
Saraswati Sheshta Balami, 14, the sister of bride Sumeena Shreshta Balami, 15, cries as the groom’s family takes Sumeena away in Kagati Village, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal on Jan. 24, 2007.

UNFPA supports a variety of programs aimed at curbing child marriage, and the report details several of them. The most effective are those that focus on keeping the girls in school. According to the report, girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children, compared to girls with little to no education.

The report notes the slight progress over the last decade in reducing the number of marriages of girls under the age of 15. It also asserts that the pace of change is far too slow.

The agency makes clear that solutions to the problem of child marriage can’t come only from the outside. Before real change can happen, communities where child marriage is practiced must themselves agree that educating girls, setting a minimum marriage age of 18 and protecting girls’ rights serves the greater good.

The bottom line is this: There is much work to be done if we’re going to prevent another 142 million girls from marrying as children between now and 2020—not to mention another 151 million girls in the decade after that.

While changing long-standing traditions takes time, these girls and their communities can ill afford to passively wait and do nothing, says Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, the UNFPA’s executive director.

“Respect for girls’ human rights requires that we prevent and end child marriage and demands that we actively support girls who are already married,” he said. “Human rights realized for girls is simply the fulfillment of our duty to them. It is the only course by which we can avert what otherwise is the human tragedy of child marriage.”


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