NEW YORK CITY – Child marriage still exists today in Southern Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Poverty is the main cause of child marriage. Marrying young daughters off to financially support the family is considered the norm in many societies. Young girls are taken away from their parents to become the wives of men often old enough to be their fathers. Education may be the one thing that can save them.
UNICEF reports that 39,000 child marriages happen every day and 14.2 million per year. The organization estimates that over 140 million girls will be married off between the years 2011 and 2020. Girls suffer physically and emotionally in their marriages. They are susceptible to violence and sexual abuse from their spouse. Child brides no longer have the emotional support of their parents and must fend for themselves.
The rate of poverty correlates with the rate of child marriages. Families living in poverty do not have the means to keep girls in school, feed them or clothe them. Gender norms tend to favor boys in these societies, so limited resources are used to take care of the sons. Daughters are deprived of basic needs simply for being female. Dowries, or a bride price, are sought by poor families to weather economic hardship.
Despite their plight, little has been done to protect girls from child marriage. The legal age for marriage is 18 years old in 158 countries, but violations go unaddressed. The failure to enforce the law stems from child marriage being a tradition and social norm in some communities. For example, 18 is the legal age in India and 24 million child brides are there, which is half the total population of child brides worldwide.
Girls are unable to receive a full education or develop the skills needed to generate a source of income. They typically receive no more than five or six years of education because their family cannot afford beyond that. The International Center for Research on Women finds that girls with eight years or more of education are not as likely to get married early as girls with zero to three years of education. Child marriage rates are highest in countries that have low education levels for girls. Girls with little education face economic hardship and early marriage.
Universal education can end child marriage or at least reduce it. Students must pay to attend school in the areas where child marriage is most prevalent. Programs need to be formed that can make schools more affordable. Need-based scholarship programs and subsidy programs that cover the costs of school supplies and uniforms or pay families to send their daughters to school will help make education more accessible. However, the main objective is to make education universal so all girls can attend.
Effort must be put forth by state governments and the international community to fund schooling for girls in developing countries. The United Nations Human Rights Council has proposed a resolution against child, early or forced marriage practices with 107 countries co-sponsoring it. While this is a big step in the right direction, the U.N. needs to make education accessible for girls as well. Girls face poverty without a formal education, which is why child marriage is so prominent in certain regions. The U.N. will have to address the major underlying cause of child marriage in order for its resolution to be effective.
– Brittany Mannings
Sources: Reproductive Health Journal, Unicef, Huffington Post, PBS
Photo: The Guardian