Put an end to child marriage

Ela Bhatt and Desmond Tutu call for an end to child marriages that, examples show, only endanger the girls' health and stunt their potential

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 12:27am

Today is our human family's first-ever International Day of the Girl. This day celebrates the fact that it is girls who will change the world. It also recognises the hardships that girls disproportionately endure - and it is especially important that child marriage should be the UN's chosen theme for this inaugural day.

The marriage of adolescent girls, sometimes to much older men, sums up much of the harm, injustice and stolen potential that afflict so many girls around the world. Ten million girls under the age of 18 are married off, every year, with little or no say in the matter. That's 100 million girls in the next decade.

Imagine, instead, the wonderful force we would unleash if these girls could be spared such a life.

They would be more likely to stay in school. Studies have shown that when girls stay longer in primary school, they earn wages up to 10 to 20 per cent higher in their adult lives. As they get older, the differences in earnings are even more encouraging.

These girls would also be more likely to be healthy, and less likely to contract diseases such as HIV/Aids, than married girls of the same age. And when a woman does eventually start a family, again experts have shown the benefit of having enjoyed a healthy, educated and safe childhood: rates of maternal and child mortality are improved by better education.

And we know, having seen it first-hand, that these educated women won't let their daughters marry as children. Child marriage could cease to exist with their generation.

Today, we have the opportunity to enshrine such a global pledge to end child marriage.

The Millennium Development Goals, the international targets set at the turn of the century, proved it was possible to think, and to act, on the largest of scales: halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/Aids and providing universal primary education by 2015 are some of the targets. Unlike many international commitments, these goals have galvanised governments to make a historic contribution towards reducing poverty.

But this progress will be stunted if we fail to address injustices as staggering, persistent and widespread as child marriage.

In our travels in Asia and Africa, we have met brave girls - and boys - who do not hesitate to stand up to tradition and say no to child marriage. These meetings have convinced us that there is a real need to connect groups around the world. This led to the creation, last year, of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of nearly 200 organisations dedicated to stopping the practice.

The voices of these girls and boys continue to rise higher up the international agenda. An international consensus on the need to end child marriage is within sight. Why not, then, pledge to eliminate this harmful practice by 2030? Development targets to improve global health, education and gender equality would also be directly tackled by such a pledge. On this inaugural Day of the Girl, we call on the international community to promise a different life to those girls - a life of their choosing.

Ela Bhatt founded the Self-Employed Women's Association, now one of India's biggest trade unions. Desmond Tutu is archbishop emeritus of Cape Town and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Both are members of The Elders. www.theElders.org