April 16, 2015
By Heather B. Hamilton, Deputy Executive Director, Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage
The world has made great strides in maternal and child health in the past quarter-century, with rates of maternal and child mortality nearly halved since 1990. But as the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s, and Adolescents’ Health is updated, it’s important to keep in mind that future progress could be undermined by the continued persistence of child marriage. We have to prioritize interventions to address child, early and forced marriage to ensure that past gains continue.
Child marriage is a massive, global issue that affects one out of three girls in the developing world. Fifty-one countries have rates of child marriage above 25%. According to UNICEF, 700 million women alive today were married before the age of 18, and up to 280 million girls are currently at risk of becoming child brides. But if we act to prevent child marriage now, we could dramatically improve the maternal and child health outcomes for millions of girls and women.
Consider the effects of child marriage on the health of girls and their children:
The effects of child marriage, however, last far beyond a girl’s adolescent years.
It is well known that well-educated mothers have healthier babies. But when girls are married early, they tend to drop out of school – in fact, child marriage is a key driver of lack of educational attainment for girls. In most cases, child marriage means an end to a girl’s formal education, which has a devastating impact both for her and for the health of her future children.
It is extremely difficult for child brides to assert their wishes and needs to their usually older husbands, particularly when it comes to negotiating safe sexual practices and the use of family planning methods. Child brides often face intense social pressure to prove their fertility, and experience early and frequent pregnancies.
In spite of this, few health services are tailored to the particular needs and circumstances of child brides, who are hard to reach and are often unaware that services are in place to support them.
What can be done?
The Global Strategy Progress Report, Saving Lives, Protecting Futures: Progress Report on the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, noted that ‘Complementing the critical focus on health, greater attention will be required with respect to social and structural factors that affect the vulnerability of women and children. Urgent attention is needed to tackle such issues as human rights violations, gender inequality, gender-based violence, early marriage and limited educational and economic opportunities that prevent women and girls from benefiting from sexual and reproductive health and rights.’
As stakeholders gather in Johannesburg from May 6-7 to review the progress report and identify next steps, we can’t miss this opportunity to ensure that we heed the lessons learned and make sure that child marriage is clearly and comprehensively addressed in the new global strategy.