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Almost one month has passed since the global community celebrated the first International Day of the Girl Child on October 11. In this time, more than one million girls have been forced to marry. Although public and private donors committed more than $100 million toward initiatives that will help end child marriage in the momentum leading up to Oct. 11, there is more work to do. Child marriage demands more than one calendar day of global attention; national governments, particularly those in countries where child marriage is most prevalent, have to step up and take action.

Stephanie Sinclair/VII

Raising awareness and investments is only one part of the solution. It does not substitute the need for decision-makers to prioritize child marriage within their respective countries.  Governments are ultimately responsible for the protection and care of their nation’s children. National leaders have an obligation to invest political capital in actions that support institutional policies and programs aimed at ending the practice.

If nothing changes, the most recent UNFPA estimates find that developing countries will witness an increase in child marriage: 142 million child marriages in 2011-2020 and 151 million in the subsequent decade. These alarming figures have real-life consequences: more child brides result in greater numbers of maternal and newborn deaths, largely due to premature pregnancy and child birth. These outcomes are preventable.

Countries have several opportunities to step up, and among them are: (1) signing the international convention against child marriage,(2) establishing and enforcing the legal age to marry at 18 years, and (3) championing an end to child marriage in the post-2015 development agenda, when the Millennium Development Goals expire.

We’ll address those first two calls to action today, and the last in our next blog post.

Signing the international convention against child marriage

In 1962, several states drafted the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages. As of October 2012, only 16 countries are signatories and 55 are parties to the convention.

This convention reaffirmed Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that marriage should be “entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”  The convention further declared that “certain customs, ancient laws and practices relating to marriage and the family were inconsistent with the principles set forth in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” and specified that states “should take all appropriate measures with a view to abolishing such customs, ancient laws and practices by ensuring, inter alia, complete freedom in the choice of a spouse, eliminating completely child marriages and the betrothal of young girls before the age of puberty, establishing appropriate penalties where necessary.”

Countries could sign the convention to show their commitment to do what is necessary to end child marriage. Among the 30 countries with the highest rates of child marriage, only seven are either signatories or parties to this convention: Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, Mali and Niger.

Establishing and enforcing the legal age to marry at 18 years.

Article 16 in the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979) states that “the betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage.” General Recommendation 21 in the CEDAW proposes that 18 years be considered the minimum age for marriage for males and females; the minimum age when young people attain “full maturity and capacity to act.”

National governments could explicitly declare 18 years to be the minimum age to marry within their borders, without qualification or exemption.

Cameroon, the DRC, Mali and Niger have laws that set the minimum age to marry at 15; Mozambique and Uganda allow girls to marry after their 16th birthday; and Guinea and Burkina Faso have set their legal age to marry at 17 years.  In these and other countries, civil and customary laws often create exemptions for girls to marry at even younger ages with parental consent. Since the majority of child marriages occur under intense parental pressure, girls are vulnerable to collusion and coercion. None of these contexts meet the standard of “full and free consent” or “full maturity and capacity to act.”

It is not enough for a country to set a minimum age; legal frameworks and public institutions must enforce the law. Leaders should not tolerate the use of civil and customary laws to justify human rights violations. Countries must invest in data collection, monitoring and accountability mechanisms to enforce the minimum age requirement.

In our next blog post, we’ll discuss the importance of championing the issue of child marriage in the post-2015 development agenda, when the world’s Millennium Development goals expire.