How child brides represent violence against humanity

Kanie Siu says a data revolution to help the world keep track of its goals on gender equality and empowering girls would be a step forward in transforming young lives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 2:24pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 7:26pm

Child marriage is a violation of human rights and detrimental to a girl’s development. For centuries, child marriage has robbed millions of girls of their rights to education, a healthy childhood and their power to escape poverty. In late August, I visited some child brides in Cambodia and witnessed the damaging outcomes of child marriage.

Eighteen-year-old Sanuth told me her story in tears. Sanuth dropped out of school and got married at 16, to build a better livelihood for the family and send her brother to school. Yet, life has not become easier. Sanuth became pregnant at 17 and is now mother to a four-month-old girl. Unable to return to school because of her marital status, Sanuth is left with the burden of raising her child and taking care of the entire family, with little chance of escaping poverty.

Sanuth’s story is typical for girls in Ratanakiri, one of Cambodia’s least developed provinces, where 59 per cent are married by the age of 15. In fact, child marriage is widely practised in many parts of the world, especially in less developed regions. To date, our world is home to an estimated 720 million child brides.

Educating girls can help break the cycle of child marriage

Child marriage is often a result of intersecting factors, including gender discrimination, poverty, the lack of effective child protection policy and traditional cultural practices. Research indicates that girls with no education are three times as likely to marry by 18 as those with a secondary or higher education. However, in the developing world, many parents do not see the value of educating girls, as girls are expected to stay at home and care for the family. Some also falsely believe that marrying off girls early can protect them from sexual violence. The lack of robust legal and policy framework in some countries are also factors.

Too much, much too young

Child brides are often denied the opportunity to go to school due to cultural practices and social pressure. Without proper education and vocational training, girls married too young are robbed of their power to build a better future, and consequently are trapped in the cycle of poverty. The lack of sexual and reproductive knowledge also exposes girls to the threats of domestic violence, sexual exploitation and sexually transmitted diseases.

What follows child marriage is the problem of early pregnancy. Each year, 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 get pregnant around the world, and 70,000 die of complications. The infant mortality rate for children of teenage mothers is also 50 per cent higher than that for mothers aged over 20.

Take 18-year-old Sa-In, another child bride I visited in Cambodia. Like Sanuth, Sa-In got married at the age of 16 in the hope that her husband could help bring in more income for her indebted family. However, a pregnant Sa-In had to tend to the endless farm work and housework day and night in order to feed the family. Without proper maternal knowledge and care, she suffered a miscarriage at six months.

In impoverished South Sudan, a child bride can be bought for a herd of cows

These stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, nations have committed to improving the status of girls by 2030. However, there is currently no reliable way to track progress on many of these goals.

In light of this, Plan International is working with partners in civil society and the private sector to improve the quality and availability of data about girls and women. By breaking down the data beyond age and sex, and taking into account factors such as ethnicity, religion and ability, the initiative aims to provide information for everyone to achieve gender equality, showing where progress is being made and highlighting where more needs to be done.

In the past 30 years, there has been growing recognition of gender equality and girl empowerment around the globe. In the Middle East and North Africa, the percentage of girls married before age 18 has declined from 34 per cent to 18 per cent; and in South Asia, marriages involving girls under age 15 have also dropped, from 32 per cent to 17 per cent. Yet, on International Day of the Girl Child this October 11, there remains much unfinished business in the fight against child marriage. The call for a data revolution, built on the collaboration of all people, is just the start of the long journey to transforming girls’ lives.

Kanie Siu is chief executive officer of Plan International Hong Kong