NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Child marriage is no less a crime than rape and sexual abuse, a women’s rights activist told the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on Friday.
“It’s rape, it’s sexual abuse…Even by calling it marriage, we’re giving it legality and social and moral acceptance,” Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of the World YWCA, said at the first-ever UNGA panel discussion on child marriage.
It’s a manipulation and abuse of culture and faith used to justify an illegal act, said Gumbonzvanda, a human rights lawyer who also is the Goodwill Ambassador of the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage.
Although experts say the practice is slowly declining, recent data from the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) estimates 700 million girls under the age of 18 are married every year around the world.
If the global effort to end child marriage isn’t sustained and increased, the annual number of underage girls married off before they turn 18 will reach 1.2 billion by 2050, panelists said.
Early and forced marriage have devastating consequences on a young woman’s body and on her psychological wellbeing, as well as on her children’s health.
It increases the risk of infant mortality, maternal mortality and child malnutrition as well as depression and suicidal tendencies because child brides are often exposed to violence and abuse, said Anita Raj, director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health at the University of California at San Diego.
Raj said data shows that girls who give birth at 18 or under face increased health risks that some experts believe can be attributable to the fact that their pelvic area hasn’t yet fully developed. This poses significant risks to the health of their newborns as well.
A “confluence of multiple factors” such as gender inequality, household poverty, lack of access to education and employment opportunities drive child marriage, which is still widespread across Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
Eliminating child marriage would not only eradicate a gross human rights violation, but it would also yield huge economic development, experts said.
Girls who don’t marry early are more likely to get an education and join the workforce, adding to a nation’s productivity.
“I look as this data as an opportunity for countries to translate this figure in economic growth,” said UNICEF Nepal’s Amjad Rabi.
If the 700 million child brides could reach their full potential, that would have huge economic benefits, not only for them but for society at large, said Rabi.
For example, child marriage is costing Nepal 3.84 percent of its GDP, the panel heard.
Experts also stressed the importance of updating and upholding legislation that protects young women and girls against early marriage and other forms of abuse, and to ensure people who encourage and practise child marriage are brought to justice.
Youth engagement and access to education were also highlighted as top priorities, together with the necessity to involve leaders of communities where child marriage is practised so that they can understand all its risks.
Child marriage is not included in the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expire in 2015 and activists are fighting to make it a top priority of the post-2015 development agenda.
(Editing by Lisa Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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