Nordic countries are still the best place to be a girl

Twelve-year-old Suria, a participant in the DFID-funded Adolescent Girls Empowerment Program – led by Population Council – in Zambia.

In the lottery of life you don’t get to choose where you are born. But if you did, Europe is the best place for girls.

Save the Children released its annual report on the state of women and girls in the world today. It ranks 145 countries from best to worst. As little surprise to anyone, the Nordic countries Sweden, Finland and Norway top the list. The first non-European country to appear on the list is New Zealand at No. 16. Further down is the United States ranked 32nd.

The index is based on rates for child marriage, adolescent pregnancy, maternal mortality, women politicians and primary education attendance. There is a strong correlation between the measures and poverty. The lowest performing countries, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic and Somalia, are places beset by issues including war, high poverty rates and weak governments.

But things do not necessarily get better when a country’s economy grows and poverty falls. Brazil, for example, ranks barely higher than Haiti in the index. The emerging economy has made major gains in recent decades. As a result, it ranks 75th overall in the U.N.’s Human Development Index, a ranking that takes in a wide array of data to measure the overall quality of life in a country. Those improvements are not reaching Brazilian girls. Some 36 percent are marrying before the age of 18, and the teen pregnancy rate is on par with South Sudan.

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It draws attention to a much broader problem. Underage marriage is widely practiced around the world. The global rate is so high that one girl under the age of 15 is married every 7 seconds. It is a major setback that robs girls of schooling and opportunities to determine their own future.

“Child marriage starts a cycle of disadvantage that denies girls the opportunity to learn, develop and be children.” said Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, in a statement. “Girls who marry too early often can’t attend school and are more likely to face domestic violence, abuse and rape. They get pregnant and bear children before they’re physically and emotionally ready, which can have devastating consequences on their and their baby’s health.”

The problem is amplified by conflict. Families displaced from their homes must find ways to cope and protect their children. Save the Children says that the uncertainty is fueling the practice of Syrian refugees marrying off their daughters. A 2013 survey found that one out of every four Syrian 15- to 17-year-old girls living as refugees in Jordan were married, according to the report.

Other crises are also harmful for girls. The closure of schools in Sierra Leone due to the Ebola outbreak may have been behind the sudden rise in teenage pregnancy. About 11,000 of the 14,000 girls who became pregnant during that time were in school prior to the outbreak. With evidence showing that schooling can help delay pregnancy and marriage, it is possible that hundreds to thousands of unintended pregnancies would have been avoided if the outbreak were better controlled at the onset.

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Current child marriage trends project more marriages, not fewer. Save the Children projects that some 950 million girls will be married by 2030, and it will top 1 billion before 2050. That is a far cry from the global goal to eliminate child marriage by 2030.

Meeting the goal requires ensuring that the basic rights of women and girls are upheld. That includes enacting and enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage. At the same time, the factors that contribute to early marriage like poverty and conflict have to be addressed simultaneously.

“Ending extreme rights violations against girls – and in the process unlocking progress across the Sustainable Development Goals – will take a concerted global effort,” the report stated. “But the prize is huge. Girls across the world will be supported to take back power and control over their lives. It’s time to ensure every last girl is free to survive, free to learn and free from harm.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.