GUEST POST BY MARGARET GREENE AND OMAR ROBLES
Approximately 14.2 million girls are forced to marry each year—nearly 39,000 girls every single day. In the time it takes to read this blog post, an estimated 80 girls will become child brides. Surita—the young girl in the haunting image above—is one of these girls.
A close look at each person in the picture draws us into the social and emotional impact of child marriage.
The young bride’s anguish is the focal point of the photo. Yet another striking element is the men, women and children who accompany Surita on the trek to her husband’s nearby village. Their faces reflect pain, confusion and even stoic acceptance.
In the foreground, a young girl seems troubled—perhaps wishing she could do something to stop the wedding. The young man in the red jacket trailing the procession has a furrowed brow, perhaps empathizing with Surita’s cry or questioning the tradition.
It is not difficult to envision the young bride’s feelings of helplessness, looking left and right for help and realizing she is on her own. Given that 51 percent of girls in Nepal marry as children, Surita had likely seen one of her peers—a sister, a friend, a classmate—similarly taken away. She may have hoped never to experience a similar fate.
The reasons for child marriage differ across and within societies. In most settings, social, cultural and religious norms condone the harmful practice that violates girls’ rights. Boys are affected too, but the practice is far more common among girls. In many communities, child marriage is a key step in a sequence of expectations for women and girls for whom marriage and motherhood are essential parts of their identity. Most parents who decide to marry their daughters as children are acting out of genuine concern for their daughters’ well-being, believing that early marriage secures their futures.
In Nepal, where the minimum legal age at marriage is 20, entire communities may keep child marriages secret. Efforts to end child marriage must engage everyone who plays a part in maintaining the silence around the practice. Programmes must provide viable alternatives to marriage. Governments can work to empower girls by investing in their primary and secondary schooling and supporting their sexual and reproductive health; ensuring that communities protect and champion the rights of women and girls; and directing services to already-married girls like Surita.
Public policies and programmes aimed at ending child marriage should specifically engage men and boys; they have an integral role to play. Men are — and boys become — the fathers, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, teachers, policemen and religious leaders around girls like Surita who are obliged to marry as children, or who may be protected from doing so.
Like women and girls, men and boys learn how they are expected to behave and the customs they should support and practice. Research has found that boys and young men can, when given the chance to critically question and reflect about what it means to be men in their communities, adopt attitudes and behaviors that support non-violence, girls’ education, gender equality and non-discrimination.
For example, in Bangladesh—where nearly 33 percent of women ages 20-24 were married before they turned 15—a 12-year-old boy named Oli is taking his advocacy message to elders in his community. Supported by Plan International, Oli encourages parents and community leaders to stop marrying their daughters very young.
As the UN International Day of the Girl Child contributes to leveraging resources to end child marriage, the need to engage whole communities in facilitating community-level change should remain a key focus. Changing traditional norms that perpetuate cycles of discrimination against women and girls and condone child marriage can only happen if all people—women and girls, and men and boys—feel empowered to stand against child marriage. And only if the majority of people in a given marriage market see the value in ending the practice.
Everyone has the potential to become an agent for social change, building communities where girls’ rights to education, non-violence, and a life of health and equal opportunity are realized.
Margaret Greene (lead writer-researcher of UNFPA’s “By Choice, Not by Chance: State of World Population 2012”) has worked for nearly 20 years on the social and cultural determinants of health, adolescent reproductive health, development policy and gender. She is widely known for her research and advocacy on the conditions faced by girls and women in poor countries and on engaging men and boys for gender equality. She currently directs GreeneWorks, a consulting group working to promote social change for health and development, including an end to child marriage.
Omar Robles works as a consultant on health, gender and development. He has led training in gender-sensitive programming for UNFPA in Indonesia and is currently a gender advisor on CARE International’s emergency deployment roster. He’s also a key member of the Too Young To Wed team.