One-third of girls in developing countries marry before they reach their eighteenth birthday, sometimes as young as 7. The practice breaches most countries’ domestic legislation, and more importantly, violates the nearly universally ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Harboring no fairytale illusions of white gowns and Prince Charming often envisioned by their Western counterparts, these girls know marriage will likely subject them to physical and emotional hardships.
Some negative consequences of child marriage are increased likelihood for young brides to fall victim to gender-based violence, to drop out of school, to contract sexually transmitted diseases, and, because their bodies are not yet fully formed, to suffer from complications related to pregnancy and childhood. Beyond these physical traumas, child brides often also suffer from post-traumatic stress, experiencing feelings of helplessness and severe depression, according to the International Center for Research on Women.
Yet the practice endures, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East, South Asia, Oceania, and South America. Often in these communities a combination of poverty, conflict, lack of education, and cultural norms valuing virginity and discouraging women’s economic empowerment, converge to sustain it. According to UN statistics, more than 25,000 girls are forced into child married daily and if current trends continue, 100 million more will marry prematurely over the next decade.
Trends will not continue, however, if human rights advocates, including hundreds of thousands of adolescent American girls taking a stand through Girl Up, get their way.
“Our girls are outraged because they know their counterparts in other countries share the same hopes and dreams but not the opportunities and they don’t think that’s fair,” Gina Reiss-Wilchins, the director of Girl Up, an organization under the aegis of the UN Foundation, tells MediaGlobal.
Girl Up, is a campaign to engage socially-aware American girls between the ages of 13 and 18 and channel their enthusiasm for helping girls like them across the world. They spread awareness among their peers, start clubs, fundraise, and petition government to improve education, healthcare, safety, and empowerment in places where adolescent girls are hard to reach.
In collaboration with various UN programs, Girl Up works on the ground in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Liberia, and Malawi, the four countries that submitted the best project proposals out of dozens identified by a UN task force as suitable for pilot programs.
“It’s a comprehensive approach” Reiss-Wilchins explains, referring to Girl Up’s strategy of ensuring respect for children’s rights. Raising the issue of child marriage is crucial because it automatically opens discussions on other issues affecting girls from healthcare, to education, to domestic violence. Girl Up launches these discussions in the communities they target, for example, talking to fathers about the dangers of marrying their daughters off too young.
The UN Foundation’s commitment to helping adolescent girls dates back to its origins in 1998. To date, it has invested $46 million to adolescent girls’ issues.
Recently, global momentum has accelerated. In 2010, several UN agencies came together to form the adolescent girls task force, which seeks to promote the well-being of this often over-looked demographic. Similarly, the Elders, a group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights, launched Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.
In sync with these efforts, on 30 April, Girl Up launched their own robust campaign to end child marriage.
It calls on Americans to lobby for US development policies to actively prevent child marriage, for example by making aid contingent upon government efforts to curb the practice. It also aims to raise awareness and funds in support of various UN programs targeting this issue. To that end, they hope to assemble a community of 500,000 American advocates by 11 October 2013, the second annual International Day of the Girl Child. To date, over 235,000 people have joined.
Already, progress is tangible. Last month, the US Senate passed the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, a bill sponsored by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME).
According to the Girl Up website, the legislation recognizes the practice of child marriage as a human rights violation, requires the development of a long-term strategy to address child marriage and integrates successful interventions to prevent child marriage into existing U.S. development programs.
“We were longstanding partners in that fight,” Reiss-Wilchins tells MediaGlobal, “our girls have raised their voices and funds, signed petitions, delivered letters to Congress and more.” Still, the bill must pass through the House of Representatives before it takes effect.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of The Elders, has expressed hope that the next generation of girls will no longer be forced into marriage. Does Reiss-Wilchins share his optimism? “I want to say yes,” she explains, “but it requires tackling each of the individual issues from poverty, to tradition, etc., that lead people to marry off their daughters so young.”
While acknowledging it is no panacea, she says the Senate’s recent action is helpful. Still, Western political willpower can only improve the situation so far. Reiss-Wilchins believes change will ultimately come from “changing the hearts and minds” in communities where child marriage is prevalent.
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