Today is International Women's Day, a day that not only honors the economic, political and social achievements of women, but also recognizes the ongoing struggles of women worldwide. This year's theme is "connecting girls, inspiring futures." What better way to motivate young women to achieve a prosperous, promising future than through education. Yet many women across the globe face a significant roadblock in allowing them to pursue an education: child marriage.
To mark International Women's Day, we are publishing our first report on child marriage (findings will be available here tomorrow). By the end of today, 25,000 young children will be married before the age of 18. And in many parts of the world, children marry at a far younger age than 18. Nearly 1.5 million children marry by the age of 15 each year. In the process, these children will lose their right to education, their right to save their bodies from dangerous high-risk pregnancies, and their right to a better quality of life.
Though the reasons for child marriage range from economic to cultural, we know that it's both a cause and a consequence of girls dropping out of school. Young girls in countries such as Ethiopia and Mali often start school long after the official entry age -– and in many cases, these young girls reach the median age of marriage in their countries before completing primary school.
Caption: Jan. 15, 2012 -- Farta (Woreda, South Gondar Zone, Ethiopia) - January 15, 2012, Buro Kantuna, Ethiopia - A young participant in the sexual and reproductive health arm of the TESFA project in Buro Kantuna, Ethiopia. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and partner agency CARE Ethiopia are helping implement and evaluate the project to determine its impact on the lives of adolescent girls like this one. The TESFA project is designed to empower adolescent girls to help reduce the prevalence of early marriages. (Credit Image: © David Snyder/ZUMAPRESS.com)
Child marriage is also an epidemic that takes thousands of precious lives each year. While the number of annual deaths of mothers during pregnancy and childbirth has decreased in recent years from over 500,000 to about 350,000, early pregnancy in girls with underdeveloped bodies kills 70,000 teenagers each year. What is most disconcerting is that early pregnancy is highly preventable. The White Ribbon Alliance estimates that a teenage girl’s chances of dying are five times higher than with a pregnancy later in life. That is a horrifying statistic.
In addition to being a serious human rights violation, child marriage also stagnates and prevents economic development, especially in the world’s poorest regions. It isolates one-half of the population, deprives children of education and a voice in the decisions that affect their lives –- further preventing economic progress, job creation and prosperity. Child marriage is a vicious cycle strongly linked to poverty.
Education in many poverty-stricken societies is the key for giving girls and women their only opportunity for success. When a young girl is sitting behind her desk at school her focus is on her studies, not marriage. When a girl is taking part in lessons, sports, or creative arts, she is learning to give herself opportunities for the future. These include opportunities to earn her own living and bring in an income to the household, which can radically change her status and promote her chances for success. While in school, she is getting a school lunch, receiving her vaccines from a school nurse, and learning health education to better take care of herself and her body. Studies have shown that women with an education tend to marry later. As a result, these women are healthier, more independent, and more valuable to the success of their societies and villages.
There are just three years left before the 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -– now the only target set by the United Nations that’s realistically achievable in full -– the goal of providing every child with an opportunity to receive a primary school education. For the sake of the world’s children, and especially young women and girls in the world’s poorest communities, we must work to make sure it is reached. Reaching this goal will also have positive impacts on other targets, including those focused on better global health and gender equality improvement.
But there is still work to do, with 67 million children –- over half of whom are girls -– to go before the MDG can be fully achieved. To help reach this target, a growing movement of governments, business, and non-profits are working closely together to focus on how to create opportunities for education, including building more schools, training more teachers, bringing in more educational materials, supporting special needs and post-conflict situations. The objective is to provide all children, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized children – those living in remote areas and conflict zones –- with the education they need to overcome deeply rooted cultural and economic factors. It is our responsibility to be their voice.
Child marriage, as a widespread human rights –- and education -- issue, has been adopted by powerful figures such as Mary Robinson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the Elders. In addition to these influential voices, the Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown is publishing a report on child marriage as the first in a series that contributes to the dialogue around education for young women. The reports investigate the roles children play when they miss school, whether that’s as a child worker, a carer or a child bride.
It’s clear that we all must work to ensure young girls everywhere find their rightful place in school, and save their time for marriage and other opportunities later on in life. Education is pivotal in changing, and often saving, the lives of hundreds of thousands of girls and women each year. Let us use this moment of International Women’s Day to refocus the world’s attention on education.
More from entertainment