This week RH Realty Check and UN Dispatch are pleased to host a special series of articles on empowering adolescent girls in the developing world. We are calling the series “Girls Count,” which is the name of a series of reports from the Coalition for Adolescent Girls which seeks to elevate the profile of adolescent girls on the international development agenda and within strategies to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals.
In this piece, UN Foundation CEO Kathy Bushkin Calvin and Nike Foundation President and CEO Maria Eitel discuss how child marriage is a barrier to the social and economic well being of adolescent girls and their communities.
We believe that an adolescent girl living in poverty is the most powerful person in the world. If we reach her early enough, she can accelerate economies, arrest major global health issues and break cycles of poverty.
When a girl gets a chance to stay in school, remain healthy, gain skills, she will marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and earn an income that she’ll invest back into her family. When she can grow into a woman and become an educated mother, an economic actor, an ambitious entrepreneur, or a prepared employee, she breaks the cycle of poverty. She and everyone around her benefits. That’s the girl effect – the powerful social and economic change brought about when girls have the same opportunities as boys.
Child marriage is one of the barriers preventing the 600 million adolescent girls in developing countries from unleashing their full potential. The numbers speak clearly: one girl in seven in developing countries marries before age 15, and nearly half of all girls are expected to marry by age 20. Early marriage is most common in South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa, where in 15 countries almost half of all girls are married before age 18.
“I stopped studying after class five because my father was religious and did not believe in girls’ education. Now I know the value of education: No one can take it away from you; it is your very own.” — A girl in Bangladesh
Child marriage is a violation of human rights, but it also has serious consequences for national development, ultimately stunting educational and vocational opportunities for a large sector of the population and for future generations.
Considerable evidence points to the negative impact of child marriage on girls, their children and their communities. Child marriage often results in heightened vulnerability of girls to physical, sexual, psychological and economic abuse, and to increased rates of school dropout. Child marriage also leads to early childbirth, which in turn often leads to poor health outcomes, and sometimes even death, for both mother and child. Pregnancy-related complications represent the leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19. Married girls are also at increased risk of HIV infection.
Consequently, interventions designed to specifically address child marriage actually affect a broader range of outcomes – health, education and economic empowerment. At the same time, programs focusing on providing safe spaces for and putting assets into the hands of girls have been shown to have a strong connection higher age-at-marriage. In fact, when a girls has assets–and we are not talking massive resources, but simple things like a social network, specific skills, some knowledge, self-esteem, personal security–if she has can tap into these resources, she then has a much greater chance of staying on course and not only delaying marriage but also securing a more positive future for herself and her family. She becomes a hugely powerful agent of change.
Addressing child marriage also requires appropriate laws to be created and enforced, particularly at the subnational level, and changes in social norms and attitudes to be fostered through innovative programs.
“The thing that helps us to realize our dreams is encouragement of the family.” ” — A girl in Morocco
Ultimately, eliminating child marriage is possible. We’ve seen it. Berhane Hewan, a program implemented by the Government of Ethiopia with support from UNFPA and the Population Council to prevent child marriage in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia has shown incredible changes in age-at-marriage in relatively short periods of time (see photos of the program below).
Investing in adolescent girls and placing them at the center of international and national action is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do. It all depends on where we choose to invest existing resources.
Background on CAG
The Coalition for Adolescent Girls is committed to creating lasting change for communities in the developing world by driving investments to adolescent girls. When girls are educated, healthy and financially literate, they will play a key role in ending generations of poverty.
Founded by the United Nations Foundation and the Nike Foundation in 2005, the Coalition has been joined by more than 30 leading international organizations, including its founding members, International Center for Research on Women, the Population Council and the International Women’s Health Coalition.
This public-private partnership brings fresh perspectives, diverse resources and concrete solutions to the challenges facing adolescent girls in developing countries.
Our goal is to unleash the untapped potential of the developing world’s 600 million adolescent girls by raising awareness and driving action.
CAG is focused on:
- Collecting and distributing the facts about the positive change girls have on their communities.
- Identifying the girl-specific actions and investments that will ignite change.
- Forming a community of like-minded organizations with diverse expertise to inform our collective work.