Committing to ending early marriage

Published on the The Australian website on March 6, 2013

By Tim Costello, World Vision Australia chief executive

In 21st century Australia, most of us have the luxury of choosing the timing of significant life events.

And that choice has led to some interesting social trends. From the age we start having kids to the process of ageing we are increasingly seeking to delay those landmark moments.

So can you imagine the distress of having real-life responsibilities thrust upon you well before you are ready?

That's the reality for the 13.5 million girls around the world who this year will marry 'early' that is, before their 18th birthday and in some cases as early as 11 or 12. Their childhood comes to an abrupt and sometimes brutal end, and the responsibility of keeping house and raising children of their own takes the place of playing with their friends, education and dreaming big.

The factors influencing child marriage in some of the poorest and most unstable parts of the world appear in a new report released by World Vision today. Those factors are complex, but they are underscored by a raw human response to crisis. That response is fear.

I saw first-hand the destructive power of fear in the midst of a food crisis in Niger last year. I saw parents responding to the fear of starvation by toiling down dangerous mines so they could feed their family. And I saw the fear and desperation that led those parents to marry off their girl children as a way of 'protecting' them.

Those fears both real and perceived include fear of hunger and malnutrition, fear of rape and sexual violence, and fear of resisting tradition at a time of extreme crisis in their community.

World Vision's 'Untying the Knot' report details how early and forced marriage is used as a coping mechanism and means of survival for families in crisis situations. Parents made desperate by hunger and extreme poverty are marrying off their daughters at increasingly young ages in the hope of safeguarding them from harm.

But sadly, the result is that many girls are exposed to even greater harms away from their childhoods and their family units. They are confined within roles which bring responsibilities that they did not choose and often do not understand.

Once married, girls experience intense pressure to bear children as soon as possible, and the consequences for maternal and child health are serious. Early marriage often condemns girls to a life of chronic poverty and social isolation. They are more likely to experience domestic violence, abuse and forced sex. Some girls see their outlook as so bleak that they try to run away from their husband, or even attempt suicide.

They are also more likely to be illiterate, as already slim education opportunities are further denied.

The lack of accessible schooling also works the other way. Girls in Somaliland and Niger report those who aren't in school are more vulnerable to early marriage.

This is also a shocking reality in Chad, where 72 per cent of women in their early twenties were married before the age of 18. A girl growing up in Chad today is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to attend school.

This is a tragedy on many levels, and consigns girls and whole communities to a cycle of extreme poverty. I am passionate about providing girls with an education because I have seen first-hand the impact that quality education programs can have on whole societies.

Female education is truly one of the greatest tools we have for reducing poverty and improving quality of life in the world's poorest countries.

When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she typically marries four years later, and has 2.2 fewer children. Limiting the horizons of millions of girls who marry early keeps development goals out of reach.

World Vision is calling on the international community to end early marriage by 2030, and the Untying the Knot report highlights key areas where organisations like World Vision as well as governments can make a difference and protect girls into womanhood.

A key to reducing the prevalence of child marriage is to provide girls and their families with alternative forms of 'security', such as more reliable food sources, and better access to schools. The international community must also embed early marriage prevention into emergency and humanitarian responses to ensure that families are offered viable, alternative means of protecting their children in unstable environments.

Practical measures such as training community health workers in the risks of adolescent pregnancies will play a role also.

And we need to support girls who are already married by improving health services, decreasing their isolation and giving them a second chance at completing their education.

In order for us to eradicate early marriage by 2030, governments must enact and enforce minimum age-at-marriage legislation and prioritise early marriage in their human rights agenda.

But the main focus must remain addressing the underlying causes.

Of course, challenging assumptions and prejudices about the capacities of girls and women will be more effective if men and boys are engaged in the process. We need to re-invigorate the fight against child marriage if we are to ensure every child can live life to the full.

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