Let's End Child Marriage So Girls Can Be Girls

In the time it takes to read this column, around 70 girls below 18 years old will have been forced into marriage, often with dire consequences.
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In the time it takes to read this column, around 70 girls below 18 years old will have been forced into marriage, often with dire consequences. Every three seconds, a girl under the age of 18 is married off. That's 10 million girls every year who are married to older men often before they are mentally or sexually ready.

But when you break the statistics down to a face, it becomes even more difficult to digest.

These are girls like 18-year-old Bibi Aisha in Afghanistan, who had her nose and ears cut off by her husband and other family members, after she ran away following years of abuse which started when she was married at 14 to a Taliban fighter.

Consider Fawziya Youssef, 12-years-old, from Yemen. Married to a man more than twice her age, Fawziya became pregnant and then died when her internal organs ruptured as she tried to give birth in a delivery which lasted three days. Her child was stillborn.

Girls like Fawziva are married off by families who need the bridal fee to survive. These are families living in poverty with very few options other than subjecting their daughters to such early marriage, though this only perpetuates the cycle of poverty. The girls themselves are often pulled out of school to be married, limiting their chances to educate and empower themselves. These girls are often married to men who may be 2, 3 or even 4 times as old as they are.

Today is the first International Day of the Girl Child -- a day aimed at highlighting, celebrating, discussing and advancing the lives of girls across the world. How can we live in a world where, every day, girls and women have their genitals mutilated, acid is thrown in their faces, they are gang-raped in moving cars, they are beaten by men they love, and they are kidnapped, sold to traffickers and kept as domestic or sexual slaves.

We pause today to recognize the potential of girls and the impact that unleashing that potential may yield for all of us. But if we do not end child marriage, the hopes of each of us are undermined.

The statistics are alarming. At current rates, it is estimated that there may be as many as 50 million child brides under the age of 15 by the year 2020. The practice is most prevalent in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, despite laws in most countries banning it. In countries such as Niger, Chad and Mali, more than 70 percent of women were married by the age of 18.

But emerging economies such as India aren't much better with 47 percent of women married as child brides.

Girls lose control over their reproductive health and are more likely to be infected by
HIV/AIDS, or be beaten or sexually assaulted by their husbands. They also are put under tremendous pressure to prove their fertility and often become pregnant at a very young age.

According to Save the Children, pregnancy is the biggest killer of teenage girls worldwide, with one million dying or suffering serious injury, infection or disease due to pregnancy or childbirth every year.

If they survive, a young bride's babies are more likely to be underweight and suffer stunting due to poor nourishment. Many will be lucky to survive beyond the age of five.

Child marriage does not just impact one life, it has a domino effect, impacting families, generations even, as well as a country's economic development.

But what is most critical is not just the perpetuation of poverty, it's the potential to break it.

Investing in girls and giving them real options for a future that does not include marriage can change their entire future as well as that of her country. When girls stay in school, they're six times less likely to become child brides. They have fewer children and those children tend to be healthier and better educated. They're more likely to develop job skills to contribute to her family's and community's economy.

Who knows what lies in store for the millions of little girls whose childhoods have been robbed
by a practice which is driven by poverty and patriarchy?

Can you imagine the immense potential of countries like India or Indonesia if girls were given
equal rights as boys?

Christy Turlington Burns is the Founder of Every Mother Counts and a Trustee of the Trust Women Conference being held in London in December. Monique Villa is the CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, organizers of the TrustWomen conference along with the International Herald Tribune.

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