This week, the world's attention will turn to a historic royal wedding. Millions of people will be talking about the dress, the guests the fashions and the parties. It's an exciting event that everyone, including us, wants to celebrate. Yet somewhere around the world, a very different kind of wedding will be taking place: A girl under the age of 15 will be married against her will. Far from pomp and circumstance, her wedding will be one that will halt her chances for an education, increase her chances of dying during childbirth, and put her in one of the highest risk categories for HIV/AIDS.
"Wedding" -- it's a powerful word. For many it calls up beautiful images: flowers, kisses, smiling friends, supportive families, tears of joy. No matter what your image of the "perfect" wedding looks like, there's one thing we're sure it does not include: a child bride.
Tragically, millions of brides around the world are young girls who are forced into marriage. One in seven girls in developing countries (excluding China) is married before her fifteenth birthday (with some girls married as early as 5 years old). Robbed of their childhood, child brides are subjected to increased health risks and the likelihood of poverty.
Up to half the girls in developing countries become mothers before they turn 18. Girls who have children at a young age tend to leave school earlier and have more children than those who begin having children later in life. With less education, it's harder for younger moms to provide for their families. If you think about the pattern, the tragic picture becomes clear: forcing a young girl to marry creates a vicious cycle that can leave each successive generations entrenched in deeper poverty.
Girls who start having babies at a young age are exposed to dangerous health risks. The leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide is medical complications due to pregnancy. Girls who are forced into marriage are more likely to suffer from HIV/AIDS.
While the statistics are daunting, there is hope. Developing nations around the world are making efforts to combat child marriage by changing laws and enforcing existing ones. Now we need to create international pressure to spur faster change.
That's why hundreds of thousands of U.S. teen girls have already joined a movement to support their peers in developing countries. The United Nations Foundation's Girl Up campaign is building the bridge between girls in this country with girls in developing countries to raise awareness and funds for UN programs. They are uniting to send a message that being forced into marriage is unfair and unacceptable.
The American teens in this movement are smart, globally aware, and more philanthropic than any generation in our nation's history. Over the next few weeks, these girls are rallying together in the fight against child marriage. Thousands of these girls are signing a petition that will be delivered to the Obama Administration stating that child marriage is unacceptable, unfair, and must be stopped. By taking this action, these girls are saying, "Girls my age are too young to choose to marry, and no one should be forced into marriage." They are engaging in a dialogue, and focusing global attention on an issue we all too often ignore.
So picture this: A world in which no girl is ever forced into marriage before she is old enough or against her will. Our youth are taking a stand to make this beautiful picture a reality. If we do not stand with them, we paint a bleak future for 600 million girls around the world. That's not a picture any of us wants to see.