The XX Factor

“Girls Not Brides” Campaign Aims to End Child Marriage in a Generation

Photograph by Katherine Gustafson.

Every year all over the world, 10 million girls under 18 are married, often to much older men. That is more people than live in London. In a decade, 100 million underage girls become brides, almost twice the population of the entire United Kingdom. It’s been years since this practice was determined to violate international human rights agreements, yet even today one-third of the girls in the developing world are wives.

Yesterday some of the world’s adults have put their collective foot down. Members of The Elders, a group of eminent global leaders including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, gathered at the 2011 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative to announce the launch of an international campaign, Girls Not Brides, aimed at ending child marriage in a generation.

The effort will focus on supporting activists who are already on the front lines of change in their countries. For example, a program called Berhane Hewan in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, where the half of all girls are married by age 15, helps unmarried girls gain the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to remain independent. Similarly, the Development Initiative Supporting Healthy Adolescents (DISHA) program in India focuses on building girls skills, creating community support for the cause, and encouraging youth-friendly health services.

Getting married so young is profoundly damaging, both for the girls themselves and to their societies. Girls under 15 are five times as likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties. Those that survive may face traumatic birthing-related injuries like fistula. Meanwhile, lacking power to refuse sex, these girls are at great danger for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The damage goes beyond that done to the children. The societies in which they live suffer for the girls’ illiteracy and lack of independence. Studies (here, here) show that countries whose women are educated and empowered make better progress in improving standards of living, health, and opportunity for their populations.

“There’s a correlation between having child marriage and really bad development outcomes—on health, on maternal mortality, on education, on poverty, on the generational transmission of poverty.” said Anju Malhotra, a leading expert on the issue at the International Center for Research on Women, Monday on a panel about the campaign.

While defenders of the practice hold up religion, culture, or tradition as justification, the campaign’s supporters are out of patience with that reasoning. “There is no religion whose fundamental principles and values promote child marriage,” writes Mozambican social and political activist and member of The Elders Graça Machel. And as for traditions, they “are made by us, and we can decide to change them.”