Tackling Child Marriage on International Children’s Day

By Rob Henderson, Public Affairs & Advocacy Officer

This time next year I’ll be a married man. It feels odd to write that, but it’s an exciting kind of odd. Like most people in my position in the UK, the thought of getting married fills me with nervous excitement and optimism about what will be the best day of their lives. But then, most of us are lucky, we choose to share our lives with someone we love, someone we want to grow as a person with, and we do this because we want to, not because we have to.

For millions of girls and boys across the world, this is not the case. Instead, they are encouraged or forced into marriage as a means of protection by the age of eighteen, and in some cases, even younger. Many of them have children while still only children themselves. This is no way to live. We have to make sure there are better options available to these girls and their families.

In this line of work sometimes it’s hard to feel optimistic. Our job is to tell politicians and policy makers how, where and why children across the world are being failed, and how they can help to change that. I started working for World Vision in 2013 and one of my first projects was to promote our work on ending child marriage. Nearly three years on, I’m pleasantly surprised to see what we have achieved across the world for girls.

Globally, child marriage is declining. This is thanks to the work of international organisations like the one that many people reading this blog choose to support, and the cooperation of national and local governments and community and faith leaders.

Harmful traditional practices across the globe are still entrenched in communities and we do still hear and see cases of negative gender norms and child marriage all too often. But since we launched our report Untying the Knot: Exploring Early Marriage in Fragile States in March 2013, the Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening MP, publically committed to ending child marriage by 2030. And while her commitment, and that of our government, signifies intent to end child marriage from the very top, we still have a long way to go.

The progress in ending child marriage has been uneven and the practice is still especially prevalent in regions that experience natural or manmade disasters such as famine or war. Places that we see on our television screens every day, including Syria, Lebanon, South Sudan and the DRC.

However, the practice is not limited to fragile contexts, or to certain religions. Across the world, girls are married because their parents fear they will fall victim to rape or sexual violence, instances which are by no means limited to failed or fragile states. To end this practice in developing areas, we must tackle cultural norms and the stigma that victims of sexual violence face.

But there is hope for girls across the world. Girls like Nilanjona (pictured) in Bangladesh, whose father arranged a marriage for her when she was just fifteen years old. Nilanjona and her mother were able to escape the entrenched poverty and the range of harmful consequences that often result from child marriage, including infant and maternal mortality, after they attended a health workshop run by some of our staff. The workshop gave them the information they needed to confront Nilanjona’s father and convince him to delay the marriage until after she has finished her education and reached the age of eighteen.

Today is International Children’s Day, a day when across the world lots of children are celebrating their rights and talking about their dreams for the future. However these dreams can’t happen if they’re married too soon. Stories like Nilanjona’s should give us all reason to be optimistic. By the time my wedding comes around next November, an estimated 15 million girls will have become child brides. Changing opinions and protecting children in traditional and often isolated communities is the only way to end child marriage by 2030. We’ve made progress so far, but there’s still a long way to go if we’re going to end child marriage by 2030.

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