When young girls enter child marriages and are forced to marry before the age of 18, all aspects of their lives are affected, from their health to their education.
Child brides who stop attending school are more likely to experience early pregnancy, malnourishment, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications. It is also more difficult for girls who enter child marriages to escape poverty.
While child marriage previously decreased worldwide, this form of gender-based violence has recently increased due to COVID-19, and the pandemic is expected to reverse 25 years of progress made to stop it. As families face economic hardship, they are increasingly turning to child marriage to alleviate themselves of one more mouth to feed. An estimated 10 million additional girls are at risk.
Here’s a list of five steps we can take to prevent child marriage within our lifetime to continue to promote gender equality.
1. Challenge gender norms that perpetuate the idea that girls are inferior to boys.
Ending child marriage starts with understanding the traditions and patriarchal systems that perpetuate societies where girls are denied human rights because of their sex. Many girls grow up believing that their virginity or reproductive status is their only asset.
Child marriage is one of the many gendered social norms that serve to control women and girls’ sexuality and is often tied to other harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM). To end it will take a collective effort that begins within households and extends throughout communities to shift away from the belief that girls don’t deserve the same choices as boys. Educational information on the impact of child marriage can empower families and community leaders to stand up against the discriminatory act.
2. Ensure all girls have access to quality education.
Research shows that keeping girls in school is one of the most effective ways to prevent child marriage. A girl’s chance of marrying before adulthood is six percentage points less for every year she stays in secondary school. And girls without education are three times as likely to marry before 18 as those who have completed secondary or higher education, according to the organization Girls Not Brides. What’s more, when girls are in school, their families are less likely to view them as ready for marriage.
The benefits of keeping girls in school are generational. If a girl doesn’t drop out of school, it is more likely that her daughter will also stay in school and help break the child marriage cycle. With a quality education, girls can gain the independence and skills to support themselves without having to rely solely on a partner.
3. Improve access to sexual and reproductive health.
If a young woman enters a marriage against her will, it is likely that she also lacks the right to make other choices about her body, such as when and if to have children or to use contraceptives. Child marriage is the main driver of early pregnancy, which has long-term impacts on a girl’s health and well-being. In some cases, child marriages occur as a result of early pregnancies.
Access to sexual and reproductive health in combination with quality education is linked to higher marriage ages. Without accurate information and knowledge on sexual and reproductive health, adolescent girls lack the resources to make the best decisions for themselves within their marriages.
4. Provide support for the development of adolescent girls.
When girls have the space to learn skills to enrich their lives and be in a community with others, they gain the confidence and knowledge to advocate for themselves. Decreasing isolation and creating opportunities to network with others equips girls with the tools they need to navigate life-altering choices such as marriage and childbearing. Groups and programs that promote girls’ development need increased funding and targeted investments to continue. It is also crucial to strengthen services for girls who are at risk of or have entered child marriages to ensure that they know where to get help if they need it.
5. Support legal systems to protect young girls’ rights.
Governments can’t show their dedication to ending child marriage without firm laws and policies that restrict and prohibit the practice and are up to international human rights standards. Policies to increase educational, economic, and social opportunities for married and unmarried girls are also necessary.
Legislation to prevent child marriage must include minimum age requirements for marriage, assistance for girls who want to leave a marriage, and the removal of parental consent or traditional laws that allow loopholes for the practice. The minimal legal marriage age is often higher for men than for women. A measure as simple as increasing birth and marriage registrations can prevent child marriage by proving a girls’ age and guaranteeing that a woman will be able to seek financial and legal support if the marriage is terminated. Systems to ensure that child marriage laws and policies are enforced are crucial to their success.