When The Cost Of Marriage Is Too High

Today, on the fifth annual United Nations' Day of the Girl Child, designed to spotlight gender inequality around the world and promote the creation of more opportunities for girls, I'd like to call attention to a silent global crisis many may not have heard of -- child marriage. If this practice sounds like a barbaric custom from the distant past, you're not alone. For the vast majority of Americans, weddings are joyous events, organized by consenting adults. But for a child, marriage is abusive and potentially life-threatening and often means she misses out on school and the chance for a future.

Today, to judge by the average ages of American brides and grooms in 2015 -- which have risen to 29 and 31, respectively -- education and careers play an increasing role for both women and men in deciding when to marry. Not so long ago, however, many American women felt pressured to choose marriage over their educations and careers, even as adults. My mother, for example, had to drop out of college in the 1960's to raise a family. Nonetheless, she strongly encouraged me to make education a priority -- and I'm deeply grateful. It helped ensure I could balance my career aspirations with being a wife and a mother. Unfortunately, as an important UNICEF report, State of the World's Children, makes clear, marriage can be startlingly different elsewhere. In fact, this report offers some shocking data on child marriage.

The scale of the crisis is staggering. Each year, an estimated 15 million girls under the age of 18 get married. That's roughly the same number of people living in Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago combined. Today, there are more than 700 million women and girls who were married before age 18. Even more disturbing, more than one in three girls (about 250 million) married before age 15. Child marriage is also a catastrophe for countries struggling with poverty, malnutrition, disease, conflict, natural disasters and climate change. For instance, it increases the risks to a girl's health and threatens her babies. Child brides are often unable to negotiate safer sex, leaving them vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections such as HIV. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for married girls between the ages of 15 and 19. Babies born to mothers under age 20 are 1.5 times more likely to die during their first 28 days than babies born to older mothers.

Worse, child marriage incurs enormous social and economic costs. How? Worldwide, girls who marry as children are much less like to attend school, and girls who don't go to school are less likely to champion their own children's education. This condemns women -- and their children -- to a lifetime of low-paid work, making it hard to lift their families out of poverty. It also significantly reduces a country's economic output over multiple generations. For example, an extra year of primary school for girls can increase their earnings 10 to 20 percent as adults; an extra year of secondary school increases them 15 to 25 percent.

Finally, child marriage is a moral calamity. It's illegal under international law and many national statutes for one very good reason. Minors can't give meaningful consent to such a momentous decision involving their bodies, their childhoods and their futures. Imagine life for Afaid, for instance, a Malian refugee living in the M'Bera refugee camp in Mauritania last year. She was never allowed to attend school, even while still in Mali. After her family fled violence there and became refugees, her father forced her to marry a much older man when she was just 14.

If we've largely eradicated child marriage in developed countries, we can -- and must -- do it everywhere else. The fate of 1.1 billion girls under 18 hangs in the balance. Fortunately, there are 21st century solutions to this age-old problem. They include increasing girls' access to schooling, educating parents and communities on the dangers of child marriage, increasing economic support to families, and strengthening or enforcing laws making 18 the minimum marriage age.

Initiatives like these really can work. Take the Malian refugee, Afaid, for example. When her mother sought help from a local UNICEF partner, she eventually got her daughter's child marriage annulled. But helping millions of girls like Afaid requires significant investment. Our public and private sectors must address child marriage much more aggressively. The American public must get involved, too. Last year, the average American wedding cost nearly $33,000. What if every American couple that got married this year dedicated just $10 to programs to end child marriage? With about 2 million weddings per year, these donations would garner $20,000,000!

However we fund it, ending child marriage would generate immense returns. Most importantly, we'd stop robbing girls all over the world of their fair chance to survive and thrive. Isn't that exactly what we want for our own daughters, too?