In 2011, as the result of youth advocacy around the world, the United Nations declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child. Its mission is “to help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.” It’s a day when activist groups come together under the same goal to highlight, discuss, and take action to advance rights and opportunities for girls everywhere.
Child marriage and a lack of access to quality education are major barriers to progress for girls across the globe, Human Rights Watch said today, on the United Nations International Day of the Girl Child.
Millions of girls worldwide are married or at risk of being married, and global progress by governments to end child marriage and ensure access to quality primary and secondary education is slow. Child marriage occurs in every region of the world: one out of every four girls marries before age 18.
“Child marriage blights the lives of millions of girls, including by depriving them of their education,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless governments act decisively, the number of married girls and women married as children will only grow, holding both the girls and their countries back from reaching their full potential.”
Girls Not Brides is calling upon the international community to prioritise investments to end child marriage, stressing that ending the practice is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Lakshmi Sundaram, Executive Director of Girls Not Brides, said eight of the 17 SDGs could not be achieved without significant progress to end child marriage, including those related to poverty, health, education, nutrition, food security, inequality and economic growth.
“A lack of attention to child marriage held us back from reaching six of the eight Millennium Development Goals. It’s vital that we don’t make the same mistake again,” said Ms Sundaram. “Child marriage is not just a gross human rights violation, it also prevents us from achieving many other development goals. How can we make progress on education, health or gender equality, for example, when so many girls are married off, kept out of school, have children before they are ready, and exposed to violence and exploitation?”
Loss of access to education is both a cause and a consequence of child marriage. Around the world, 32 million primary school and 29 million lower-secondary school-age girls are out of school, and almost two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. Girls who are out of school are at heightened risk of being married as children.
South Asia has the highest prevalence of child marriage, with one in two girls married before the age of 18. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent of girls marry before age 18, and African countries account for 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage. Child marriage also occurs in high-income countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Human Rights Watch has documented the adverse consequences of child marriage in Nepal, Bangladesh, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, and Yemen.
Child marriage prevents girls from participating in all spheres of life but has a particularly pernicious impact on their access to education. Girls who marry often leave school prematurely due to social pressure, domestic responsibilities, and pregnancy and parenting. In many countries cultural or religious beliefs stigmatize unmarried, pregnant girls, with the result that pregnant girls are forced into early marriages.
Discriminatory government policies often bar married or pregnant girls from attending school. In Tanzania, for example, Human Rights Watch found that school officials conduct forced pregnancy tests and expel pregnant students. The government has also stalled on its commitment to increase the legal age of marriage to 18 for boys and girls.
Girls in Malawi, South Sudan, Nepal, and Bangladesh told Human Rights that once married or having given birth they faced family pressure to drop out, lack of child care, inability to pay education-related costs, and the need to do household chores. The government’s failure to provide genuinely free and accessible education for all contributes to the pressure on those most at risk.
All UN member countries have made a commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals to guarantee gender equality, end child marriage, and provide universal access to free primary and secondary education for all children by 2030.
Governments should adopt—and fully enforce—laws that set 18 as the minimum marriage age for boys and girls, Human Rights Watch said. They should also enact laws to ensure the free and full consent to marriage of both spouses and to provide penalties for violence and intimidation to pressure people to marry. Governments should educate parents, guardians and community leaders about the harmful effects of child marriage and put programs in place to protect girls at risk.
Governments should also guarantee that girls have equal access to free quality primary and secondary education, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure that girls get the support they need to stay in school, and reverse harmful policies and practices that discriminate against girls, including forced pregnancy testing and regulations that allow for the expulsion of pregnant or married girls. Governments should also provide information to parents, guardians and community leaders about the benefits of educating girls and step-up efforts to keep girls in school in rural and remote areas where child marriage is more prevalent.
“Girls in school should not have to fear marriage depriving them of their education,” said Zama Neff, children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should put in place laws and policies that ban child marriage and ensure that all girls have access to free primary and secondary education.”
Across the world, 15 million girls are married each year before the age of 18. Evidence shows that ending child marriage will catalyse efforts towards achieving the SDGs by improving educational attainment, income and maternal and child health. A recent study by the World Bank and International Center for Research on Women found that the practice costs the global economy trillions of dollars, according to Girls Not Brides.
The photo is an example of an actual five year old married to a 22 year old man named Habibullah Shar in Pakistan. Pakistani Police said they were unable to stop the wedding between a 22-year-old man and this five-year-old girl as the the police raid squad arrived moments after the wedding nuptials had already been completed. Officers swooped on the man and others involved in the celebrations in the village of Raman Shar in Dakhan Town, Pakistan.
Those arrested include the groom Habibullah Shar, the registrar Molvi Kifayatullah Bhutto, 40, and the father of the groom Gul Meer. All those accused, the groom, his parents and parents of the girl were held under sections 3, 4 and 5 of the Pakistan Penal Code under the Early Child Marriages Restraint Act of 2013.Child marriage is considered a punishable offence in Sindh and the age of consent to this is 18 years old.
The maximum jail term is three years. A global ban on child marriage would go a long way in putting an end to such absurdities.