It is difficult to fathom that in Lebanon girls as young as 12.5 years old can be married with their parents’ permission. In India, half of girls between the ages of 20 and 24 have been married before the legal age of 18.
Child brides often drop out of school, and are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS, and become victims of sexual violence. They are more likely to die in childbirth and have low weight or disabled babies because of obstructed labour due to their immature bodies.
The international community needs to get behind a growing global movement against child marriage. The Canadian government – on International Women’s Day – should add its voice, leadership and funding, just as it did in 2010, when it pledged $2.85-billion over five years to improve global maternal, newborn and child health. Canada could work with the worst offenders – Chad, Bangladesh, Niger, Afghanistan, South Sudan – to encourage governments to put birth registrations in place and enact and enforce marriage age-limit laws.
“The reason why parents marry off their children is often out of fear, to protect them from rape and premarital pregnancy or as a coping mechanism because they cannot feed their families,” said Elly Vandenberg, with World Vision Canada. “Usually you enter a marriage with hope. They enter it with fear in their hearts.”
A World Vision report documents some horrifying practices: among them, husbands in Bangladesh who literally starve their child brides to force their families to increase the dowry, and young pregnant girls who are refused medical treatment in Somaliland by male health workers.
Globally, one in three women aged 20-24 was married before turning 18, according to a 2012 UNICEF report. Most of the countries with the highest rates of child marriage suffer from conflict, fragility or natural disasters.
Engaging men and boys in the fight against early marriage is the best way to end it. A girl who doesn’t marry at 15 can graduate from high school and become a teacher, an accountant or a nurse. She can contribute to her family’s income, and ultimately to the progress of her country.