Why policy-makers must address early and forced marriage for girls

by Because I am a Girl

As part of our commitment to women and girls, we are proud to be participating in this year's session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Every year, the Commission meets at the UN Headquarters in New York to evaluate the progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote women's empowerment worldwide. For the past few years, Plan has been honored to attend the CSW and participate in key events. Deepali Sood - Plan International's Global Director for Because I am a Girl - was among the Plan delegates invited to attend this year's CSW. Below is her reflection on the event.

Posted by Deepali Sood

Something pretty extraordinary is happening this week in the life of 15-year-old Maryam. From rural Pakistan, Maryam is among nine teenage girls from developing countries who are representing Plan International at a United Nations meeting in New York. They are here to tell the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) just how harsh life is for girls and young women in poor rural communities.

Maryam’s father is a farmer, and she is the youngest of six children. Maryam considers herself fortunate because her parents still pay for her education, which is unusual in her village. Her friend Shazia’s* experience is more common. She dropped out of school when she was 10 because her parents could no longer afford it. Instead they arranged for her to be married. Last month, 15-year-old Shazia became somebody’s wife.

Each year, 10 million girls under 18 are affected by early and forced marriage. In the poorest countries, one in seven girls is under 15 when she marries. With marriage often comes childbearing. Girls aged 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20 to 24.

Far from securing a girl’s future, early and forced marriages can drive girls and their subsequent children into cycles of poverty, ill health and illiteracy. They are more likely to endure violence, abuse and forced sexual relations.

Being forced to marry early is a key reason why 75 million girls do not attend school. Plan works with 700,000 girls across the developing world. Many tell us they do not want to marry early – and they fear that doing so will force them to leave school. Keeping girls in quality education has been shown to bring tangible benefits for their families, communities and economies.

This year’s CSW meeting is prioritizing the empowerment of rural women. Many of the root causes of early and forced marriage – poverty, conservative attitudes, traditional customs – are most prevalent in rural areas. Plan’s girl delegates will describe growing up in impoverished rural communities, where their peers experience early and forced marriage, transactional sex, polygamy and domestic violence.

We’re hoping their accounts will highlight the urgency of ending early and forced marriage. It is a practice that denies girls their potential, their rights and their dignity. Moreover, ending it is a pre-requisite to delivering key international development goals. If policy-makers are serious about empowerment, they must take action now.

*Name has been changed.