Child marriage seen as a girl’s health issue

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The development community is starting to pay closer attention to the problem of child marriages.

Long considered an issue of human rights, the conversation about child marriage is shifting to that of health and education. Girls married too young are denied the educational opportunities of their peers and are put at greater health risks, such as HIV and teen pregnancy.

What may seem like a distant problem, child marriage is found in every part of the world. Ending the global practice will unleash opportunity for millions of women and girls.

The number of global child marriages is declining, but not quickly enough. Rates are staggering in places like Chad, Niger and the Central African Republic. More than two out of every three girls are married before eighteen. Roughly half of the girls married early in Niger do so before turning fifteen.

The global rate of child marriage is alarmingly high in developing countries where one out of every three girls will marry before turning eighteen. It is estimated that 142 million girls will marry before the age of eighteen this decade. The majority of cases are found in South Asia and West and Central Africa, but it is India that carries the majority of the burden, 40% to be exact.

It is not only a problem in Africa and Asia. Closer to the US, Haiti has a child marriage rate exceeding thirty percent.

Child marriage perpetuates may of the poverty traps that stall development and work against US foreign aid support. Protecting the health and education of women and girls can break down some of poverty’s barriers. A new InfoGuide from the Council Foreign relations illustrates the problems encountered by child brides, shares some of their stories and describes actions to end the practice of child marriage.

Conflict is another influence on child marriages. Reports of gender-based violence out of the Syrian conflict and in others heightens the importance of protecting girls.

“Recent research suggests that families in crisis situations are more likely to marry their daughters early, either to preserve resources by offloading economic responsibility for their girl children or in an attempt to ensure their daughters’ safety from conflict-related sexual violence,” said Vogelstein.

Syrian refugees are already feeling the economic pinch as money is running out and job opportunities are thin. It is the exact situation that could lead to more child marriages.

The US should also prioritize child marriage, says Vogelstein. A paper she authored in May lays out a case for greater US engagement in women’s and girl’s rights as a way to advance foreign policy goals.

Dealing with the problem requires building partnerships with religious leaders, says Rachel Vogelstein, a fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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“Religion is often blamed for the prevalence of child marriage. Notably, however, the practice is not unique to any one faith; in fact, it occurs across religions and regions,” blogged Vogelstein.

Despite the less obvious connection, religion plays a vital role in working with communities to cease child marriages. It is a development issue because it more closely related to poverty than any other cause. Traditions, cultural values and fertility desires contribute at levels that vary from country to country.

There is no silver bullet solution to child marriage. Laws set by national governments and enforced by police need to be combined with grassroots efforts to abandon the traditional practice, recommends the report. The anti-female genital mutilation/cutting group Tostan, is an example of how working with communities can lead to social changes that protect girls.

The US can engage with governments directly. With maternal and child health the high-level target areas for US development and aid, it only makes sense to tackle the issues that harm women and girls, like child marriage.

“The reach and success of U.S. efforts to improve global health, bolster education, foster economic growth, and promote stability and the rule of law will grow stronger if this persistent practice comes to an end,” concludes Vogelstein.

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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.