NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - Child marriage is a global scourge that steals the innocence of millions of girls, perpetuating a cycle of poverty, ignorance and discrimination down through the generations, rights groups say.
A girl under the age of 18 is married every three seconds -- that's 10 million every year -- often without her consent and sometimes to a much older man, according to the children’s charity Plan UK.
"This is one of the biggest development issues of our time and we're committed to raising the voices of millions of girls married against their will," said Marie Staunton, chief executive of Plan UK in her introduction to Breaking Vows, a global report on child marriage.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child considers marriage before the age of 18 a fundamental human rights violation. Nonetheless, according to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), there are more than 50 million child brides worldwide, a number that is expected to grow to 100 million over the next decade.
Rights activists note that six of the United Nations' eight Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015 are directly -- and negatively -- affected by the prevalence of child marriage.
Those six goals are the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; achievement of universal primary education; promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women; reduction in child mortality; improvement in maternal health and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
The ripple effect of child marriage is devastating, experts say.
Girls forced into early marriage rarely continue their education, denying them any hope of independence, the ability to earn a livelihood or of making an economic contribution to their households.
The practice also reinforces the concept of girls as worthless burdens on their families to be jettisoned into marriage as soon as possible.
Girls who complete secondary school are six times less likely to become child brides than contemporaries with less or no education, according to the ICRW, a Washington-based think tank.
But distance from schools and a lack of school fees often preclude education for the poorest girls, who are twice as likely to marry young as those from wealthier homes.
In Niger, Chad and Mali, more than 70 percent of girls are married before the age of 18, according to ICRW analysis of demographic and health data last year.
Bangladesh, Guinea, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Burkina Faso and Nepal have child marriage rates over 50 percent, the data showed.
Ethiopia, Malawi, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Eritrea, Uganda, India, Nicaragua, Zambia and Tanzania are all above 40 percent.
WHY DOES IT HAPPEN?
The reasons child marriages occur vary with the country and are rarely simple.
“Very often people are sort of quick to demonise, in some ways, the family members and the people who make the decisions about the marriage of girls," Jeffrey Edmeades, a social demographer with ICRW, told TrustLaw.
"But we’re finding, for the most part, that people are making these decisions because they feel it’s best for their daughters. Parents love their children and they do want the best for them. They’re just not sure what the best is."
Edmeades, who has been working with aid agency CARE on a project to tackle child marriage in Ethiopia, gave the example of children in that country being betrothed before birth to cement strategic alliances between families.
In other cases, girls are married off early to ensure that their virginity, and thus their economic value as brides, is intact and the honour of the family is protected.
Meanwhile, debts and natural disasters, such as tsunamis and drought, can lead to girls being sold off as brides as families scramble for survival.
While it is a subject still little known and rarely discussed in much of the Western world, the issue of child marriage is drawing greater attention from international aid and humanitarian organisations, as well as governments.
In the United States, where child marriage is rare, the U.S. Senate has reintroduced legislation aimed at curbing global child marriage that was unanimously passed in the Senate in 2010 but blocked in the House of Representatives.
The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act... would establish a multi-year strategy to prevent child marriage in developing countries, require the State Department to report on child marriage in its annual human rights report and integrate child marriage prevention efforts into current development programmes.
The bill will be reintroduced in the House this autumn, according to Betty McCollum, a Democrat representative from Minnesota, who is its lead sponsor there.
The bill was blocked in the House last December primarily due to Republican concerns that it would help organisations supplying abortions, which "couldn’t have been farther from the truth”, McCollum told TrustLaw.
“It has nothing to do with abortion. It has everything to do with saving 12-year-old girls from being sold into slavery or sold to settle a family debt.”
Not only will it make aid dollars more effective, she said, but “it’s a win for the child, it’s a win for the community the child lives in and it’s a win for the international community".
The Elders, an influential group of global leaders founded in 2007 by former South African President Nelson Mandela, gathered dozens of organisations for a two-day meeting in Ethiopia in June and have launched a campaign called “Girls Not Brides: the Global Partnership to End Child Marriage".
SIGNS OF HOPE
The problem is difficult, but there are signs of hope.
A child in India who refused to be married...
A woman in Senegal, married at the age of 13, who has rallied a village to abandon the practice of child marriage...
A hospital in Kenya where fistula is treated and the lives of girls are restored...
These are some of the stories that TrustLaw Women will cover in a major multimedia documentary to be launched on Aug. 4.
But there are also major obstacles to overcoming child marriage and TrustLaw Women will cover those too, including the catastrophic health implications for millions of child brides.
“You can make progress," said ICRW's Edmeades. "It’s possible to change people’s minds and behaviours. The tougher thing is to change beliefs about women and girls and their roles in society.”
Starting Aug. 4, "Child Marriage: Denying girls' rights, perpetuating poverty", a multimedia documentary by TrustLaw, along with special articles, videos and resources on child marriage can be accessed at http://childmarriage.trust.org.