Too Young to Wed: International Action for Girls' Human Rights
“Marriage isn't a happy thing. When they told me I was to be married, I wasn’t happy because I know it’s not good. I’d be happy to go to school. What I want to do is learn how to read.”
Haoua, 15, was married last year. She is currently recovering from serious childbirth injuries and has problems with incontinence and a fistula. Such health effects are common among young brides who are not physically mature enough for sex or childbirth.
Haoua is just one of 14 million girls worldwide married every year as children, according to the UN. The UN identifies children as anyone under 18 and declares that the decision to marry cannot be made until that age, as children lack the "full maturity and capacity to act."
Despite its prohibition in international human rights law and many pieces of national legislation, child marriage is a persistent global problem. In Haoua's home country of Niger, the law states that the legal age of marriage is 15 for a girl and 18 for a boy, but this decree is poorly enforced; most marriages are conducted according to custom, proceed without both spouses’ consent, and are never registered. Research carried out by Plan in the country shows that 36 percent of girls younger than 15 are already married. Witnesses describe girls as young as 8 clutching toys during the ceremony.
“1 in 3 girls in developing countries is married by her 18th birthday”
Sadly, this pattern is widespread. Across the developing world, 1 in 3 girls is married by her 18th birthday. Unless action is taken to stop current trends, the UN predicts that more than 140 million girls will be married as children by 2020.
Early marriage forces girls out of school and greatly increases their chances of experiencing violence, abuse, ill health, and death. For girls like Haoua, aged 15-19 in developing countries, complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of mortality.
“Education and empowerment are key"
Arjina could have faced the same fate as Haoua. At the age of 12, she was told by her parents that she would soon be married off. Her sister had gotten married at 15, and such practices are the norm in her home district of Nilphamari in northern Bangladesh. Arjina sought help from the local children's organization, Surjomukhi, which convinced her parents to postpone the marriage. Surjomukhi is an organization led by local youth and supported by Plan that works towards educating the community on the risks of child marriage.
“Arjina's story is a source of hope for all of us working to end child marriage. It shows how young people, coached and supported by organizations like Plan, can effect real change in their communities. It also highlights the powerful role of education in ending this harmful practice,” says Plan's UN Representative and Head of Office in Geneva, Anne-Sophie Lois.
Today, Arjina is 19 and an honors student of the Government University College. She is a leading campaigner in the fight against child marriage in her community. “After I complete my studies,” Arjina says, “I want to be a teacher and keep working for my community.”
“A serious human rights violation, an obstacle to development, and a public health issue”
Internationally, there is growing consensus around the need to end this harmful practice. Policy makers recognize child marriage as a serious human rights violation, an obstacle to development, and a public health issue.
In March 2014, Plan International will partner with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Governments of Canada, Ethiopia, Finland, Honduras, Italy, the Netherlands, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, Uruguay, and Yemen, as well as the African Union, IPU, OHCHR, UNICEF, WHO, Girls not Brides, and World YWCA to host a major photo and video exhibition highlighting the issue of child marriage. This display will be coupled with a high-level panel discussion at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, organized on 3 March to coincide with the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council and International Women's Day.
Together with communities, families, and children themselves, action is needed to change the behaviors and attitudes that foster child marriage. Partners at the national, regional, and international levels need to work for the political will and targeted resources to support governments in protecting girls’ human rights and ending child marriage.