Young campaigners from around the world are speaking out and helping to change outdated laws—and attitudes—that allow early marriage to continue.
Child marriage is a violation of children’s human rights and an extreme manifestation of gender inequality. Despite being prohibited by international law, it continues to rob millions of underage girls around the world of their childhood.
Child marriage denies girls their right to make vital decisions about their bodies, well-being, and future. It forces them out of educational opportunities and into a life of poor prospects, with increased risk of violence, abuse, and ill health.
That’s why girls’ rights activists from around the world are lobbying their governments to outlaw the practice and put an end to child marriage, everywhere.
Policy Change in Latin America
Youth advocate Celia, 11, got involved in the campaign against child marriage when her school began working with Plan International Honduras in 2015. She attended a workshop on girls’ empowerment and was shocked to learn that in her country 34 percent of girls are married before the age of 18.
“I also learned that it could affect our economy,” she said. “Did you know that preventing girls from marrying could lead to an increase in GDP of up to 3.5 percent?”
Child marriage was outlawed in the country in July after a vote in Congress that raised the minimum marriage age from 16 to 18, removing all exceptions—including parental permission. Celia was in attendance, along with 13 other youth activists and Plan.
“My dream is that this will mean more girls going to university, which will help our country to progress and break the cycle of poverty.... Plan International showed me that I can break that cycle,” she said.
This success in Honduras followed the closing of a legal loophole in the Dominican Republic in May that had previously allowed children under 18 to marry with parental consent.
Malawian Girls Enlist Support of First Lady
Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with approximately half of all girls married by the age of 18. Memory Banda’s sister was just 11 when she was forced to marry the man who got her pregnant:
“At the time, I was young and thought this was normal,” said Memory. “But I quickly realized the devastating impact it had on her when she was further abused in marriage.”
With the support of Plan, Memory and other young campaigners presented the First Lady of Malawi with a petition of 42,000 signatures rejecting the practice.
In February 2017, the law was amended to ban all instances of marriage for girls under 18—even when there is parental consent.
Wedding Busters in Bangladesh
Even when the law changes, it can still take time to eliminate harmful practices like child marriage from societies where customs are deeply entrenched.
In Bangladesh, the minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. However, a legal loophole known as the Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed in February 2017 that permits marriages in “special circumstances,” when there is consent from parents in conjunction with magistrates.
This effectively makes child marriage legal if it is considered in the “best interest” of the girl involved—leaving many concerned that young girls could be forced to marry their abusers.
In Bangladesh, 52 percent of girls are married before 18, and both poverty and dowry are driving factors for early marriage, as costs often increase the older a girl gets. Financial pressure means that girls from poorer families are more likely to become child brides.
However, young activists are taking action.
With the support of Plan, girls’ rights campaigners have been visiting parents to explain the negative impacts child marriage has on girls, emphasizing the importance of education and helping to secure “child-marriage-free zones” in the country.
Even when legal success is achieved, young campaigners are proving vital to the global effort to stamp out child marriage in places where deeply embedded cultural beliefs might otherwise allow it to continue.