The world we want: an end to child marriage

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Monday, 23 September, 2013

"With political will, appropriate investments, and programmes tailored to local settings, we can bring an end to child marriage by 2030." With discussions underway about the post-2015 development framework, Graça Machel, Gunilla Carlsson and Emilia Pires write in The Lancet that to address global poverty, we need to invest in girls.

Graça Machel, together with two fellow global development experts, have written in the renowned medical journal The Lancet that focusing on ending child marriage “will help to address some of the world’s most intractable poverty and human rights challenges”.

As the 2015 expiration date of the Millennium Development Goals draws nearer, a new global development framework is taking shape. Mrs Machel and co-authors Gunilla Carlsson and Emilia Pires, who are members of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development, write that discussions so far “have emphasised the need to ensure the empowerment, well-being and social protection of the world’s most vulnerable people” – and that this means focusing on girls.

Child marriage: the impact on girls

Child marriage – which affects one third of girls around the world, excluding China – not only violates girls’ rights, denies them an education and increases their chances of being victims of violence, the authors write. It also has huge health impacts, both for the individual girls and for their families.

“In terms of maternal health, for example, girls who marry young often have early and frequent pregnancies. Pregnancy-related complications are the leading cause of mortality in girls aged 15–19 years in low-income countries and cause lasting morbidity. Of the 16 million adolescent girls who give birth every year, about 90 per cent are already married. There is also an intergenerational impact: the children of child brides are at substantially greater risk of perinatal infant mortality and morbidity, and stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50 per cent higher in mothers younger than 20 years than in women who give birth later.”

Highlighting the strong connection between child marriage and maternal health, they also cite a recent study of 97 countries showing that reducing the incidence of child marriage could be associated with a substantial reduction in maternal mortality rates.

A global movement to end child marriage by 2030

There is increasing recognition that the status of girls is an important measure of global development – and that ending child marriage can break the cycle of poverty. Ban Ki-moon said in his annual report to the UN General Assembly last month that “the practice of child marriage must be ended everywhere.” In May this year, the report of the Post-2015 High-Level Panel notably included child marriage as a suggested indicator for the goal to empower girls and women and achieve gender equality.

To address child marriage, the authors call for partnership and collaboration across education, health and justice sectors, involving girls and boys, families and communities, religious and traditional leaders, as well as governments. They recommend several specific steps, including strengthening birth and marriage registration systems, and ensuring that sexual, reproductive and maternal health programmes cater for adolescents and child brides as well as older married women. In addition, there should be greater investment in girls at risk of child marriage and more support for girls who are already married, particularly in helping them complete their education.

“We are confident,” the authors conclude, “that with political will, appropriate investments, and programmes tailored to local settings, we can bring an end to child marriage by 2030.”

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