28 girls are married every minute, new program aims to stop child marriage

Charlie, 12, of Kalamu of Kinshasa said that a girl should "be able to continue studying. She is not fit to manage a home, to care of a husband or to have sex with him! " (Credit: UNICEF)

A new joint initiative by UNICEF and the United Nations Programs Fund (UNFPA) aims to end child marriage across the globe by 2030. It is an ambitious goal, considering that more than 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married every year. Put another way, 28 children become brides every minute, and more than 10 percent of the world’s population today are women who were married as children.

“This is critical now,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, in a statement, “because if current trends continue, the number of girls and women married as children will reach nearly 1 billion by 2030 – 1 billion childhoods lost, 1 billion futures blighted.”

The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage is part of a global effort to prevent child marriage and to support those children already married in 12 countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, including Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Yemen and Zambia.

According to UNICEF, the focus will be on five strategies: increasing girls’ access to education, educating parents and communities on the dangers of child marriage, increasing economic support to families and enforcing existing laws against marriage before the age of 18.

Although child marriage is common across many regions of the developing world, there is a growing movement to put an end to the practice. Some of the most compelling reasons for eradication is that it violates human rights, puts girls at a higher risk of contracting HIV, makes them more likely to be victims of domestic violence, and puts them at a higher rate of mortality due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

Child marriage is also illegal in many of the countries where it is most prevalent, and it perpetuates poverty, since married girls often leave school and consequently lack the skills to provide financial support to their families.

But child marriage persists across the world, in part because it is an age-old tradition, and traditions are hard to change. The objective now is to challenge beliefs about gender inequality as well as social norms which, if not followed, can result in rejection from the community.

Abject poverty also helps perpetuate the practice through generations. Families who can barely afford to feed their children often feel they have no other choice than to marry off their daughter in exchange for a dowry, or to reduce their expenses by caring for one less child.

“The world has awakened to the damage child marriage causes to individual girls, to their future children, and to their societies,” Lake said. “This new global program will help drive action to reach the girls at greatest risk – and help more girls and young women realize their right to dictate their own destinies.”

Along with the announcement of the program’s launch, UNFPA-UNICEF released a new video, in collaboration with popular wedding blog Bridal Musings, which provides a disquieting visual of the consequences and scope of child marriage:

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.