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Indian child bride. REUTERS/Amit Dave

UNICEF seeks end to child marriages that threaten girls’ rights, lives

By Andrew Whitehead | 17 October 2012

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has kicked off an ambitious new program to end child marriage, which it calls “a fundamental human rights violation that impacts all aspects of a girl’s life.”

UNICEF announced its new program as part of International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, 2012.

“The International Day of the Girl Child readily reflects the need to put girls’ rights at the centre of development,” said Anju Malhotra with the Gender and Rights Section in UNICEF, “The UN and partners are coming together to show the incredible progress made and to highlight the ongoing challenges.”

The campaign against child marriage is also spearheaded by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu who, together with an independent group of activists known as The Elders, have formed an organization called Girls Not Brides.

According to Girls Not Brides, child marriage is most common in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and South America in traditional societies where boys are often favored over girls. Girls are viewed as a particular burden in poor families because they are perceived to contribute less economically and as an extra mouth to feed. In contrast, the dowry paid for a young wife may prove to be a great help to her struggling family.

But the UN says that child marriage has major consequences on girls’ mental and physical well-being, as well as on the lives of the children they bear. Maternal deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth are an important component of mortality for girls aged 15-19 worldwide, accounting for some 70,000 deaths each year. Moreover, girls between 10 and 14 years of age are five times more likely than women aged 20 to 24 to die in pregnancy and childbirth.

Girls who are forced to marry young often drop out of school when they marry. Their lower education level leaves them economically dependent, and vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.

Child marriage also has damaging effects on the children young women bear. If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant’s risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 percent greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19. Even if the child survives, he or she is more likely to suffer from low birth weight, undernutrition and late physical and cognitive development.

As  part of the events in recognition of International Day of the Girl Child, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at a presentation with Archbishop Tutu in Washington, where she pledged to make child marriage a major focus of efforts through such programs as USAID and PEPFAR, the organization that deals with the HIV/AIDS and health issues. She also said the U.S. is working with countries like Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to provide assistance that will help promote greater awareness and reduce the incidence of child marriage.

According to Girls Not Brides, countries around the world that are beginning to take steps to curb child marriage include Pakistan and Swaziland. In Pakistan the legal age for marriage is 18, but because the country has no national registry or identification card, creating fraudulent identification is easy. The country has announced that it will require marriages in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province be registered with the National Database Registration Authority in an attempt to reduce fraud.

And in Swaziland, the new Children’s Protection and Welfare Act of 2012, which was passed in September, grants all persons under 18 years of age to refuse to uphold any custom and other traditional practice which is likely to negatively affect them. Previously, child marriage was permitted under the 2005 Swaziland constitution, which allowed some customary practices provided they did not conflict with constitutional clauses.

The important role women play in sustainable families, economies and environments has been consistently demonstrated. Childhood marriage subjects girls to significantly increased risk of poverty, subjugation and premature death, and UNICEF’s efforts are one step toward building better lives for these girls and everyone’s future.

Topics

Law

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