“It’s possible to protect against child marriage; it’s possible to end child marriage”
Ann Starrs is FCI’s president.
Yesterday at the United Nations, FCI joined with the UN Missions of Bangladesh, Canada, and Malawi, and a dozen partner organizations, to sponsor a moving, inspiring, and often infuriating discussion on child marriage. Too Young to Wed, a side event to this week’s annual meeting of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, shed light on an issue that affects tens of millions of young women — 39,000 women under 18 are married every single day — but is too seldom discussed.
For FCI, this issue hits right to the heart of our mission. When a girl is married off too early, she begins sexual activity without giving any meaningful consent, and is soon faced with a pregnancy for which she is not prepared either physically or emotionally. The risk that a pregnant teenager will experience complications that threaten her life or health is much higher than for an adult woman. Adolescent girls account for about 10% of all marriages but nearly a third of all maternal deaths. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for young women between 15 and 19 in the developing world.
Speakers at the UN event included Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, the Executive Director of UNFPA, and Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women and former president of Chile; senior representatives of the governments of Namibia and Malawi; and a number of advocates. One moving highlight was an appearance by video link (because she was unable to procure a US visa) by Mereso Kiluso, a young Tanzanian who was married off at the age of 14 to a man in his 70s.
A number of panelists emphasized that child marriage is often a form of sexual violence. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of World YWCA, moderated the discussion, noting that it is rape when a young girl has to sleep with a man she doesn’t know, even if it is on her wedding night. And Michelle Bachelet pointed out the vast power inequality that exists between a young bride, with no legal or social support to rely on, and her older husband, who often paid for her and views her as a piece of property.
“The problem of child marriage,” according to Lakshmi Sundaram of Girls Not Brides, “is underlaid by the fundamental belief that girls and boys are not equal.” A world in which women are second-class citizens is a world that will continue to tolerate sexual violence, genital mutilation, and early marriage. When parents see national and community leaders who are women, said Bachelet, they will begin viewing their own daughters differently.
Several speakers highlighted the need not only for stronger government policies – notably an increase in the age of marriage – but also for implementation and enforcement of the policies that are in place. Girls – and boys – must have access to information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to health services, including family planning. Religious leaders should be engaged on this issue: for example, before presiding at a marriage ceremony, they should take the bride aside privately to ascertain her consent, and ask to see her birth certificate to ensure she is of age.
As Catherine Gotani Hara, Malawi’s Minister of Health, pointed out, policies must be put in place not only to discourage or prevent child marriage, but also to mitigate its effects: for instance, Malawi now allows girls to stay in school even if they are married and/or pregnant.
The discussion came back, again and again, to the vast challenges that still exist in our efforts to protect girls and young women from being forced to marry too soon. But there was also reason to hope. “It’s possible to prevent child marriage,” said Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda. “It’s possible to protect against child marriage, and it’s possible to end child marriage.”
- Watch a video of the event
- Read the press release
- Read a blog by Carole Presern of the Partnership of Maternal, Newborn & Child Health