Assefa Amenu, 2008 CARE
SALT LAKE CITY — In the developing world, one in 10 girls is married before the age of 18. One in seven is married before 15. Tino Borantu of Ethiopia was married at age 9.
She was forced to marry her deceased sister's husband, who is 26 years her senior, and take on his child. Suddenly, before reaching her 10th birthday, Tino had to learn to provide for both husband and child.
The situation is common for young girls in Ethiopia and other African countries, where every year an estimated 10 million girls are married before they turn 18. Globally, nearly 400 million women currently ages 20-49 were married before 18, according to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of non-governmental organizations committed to ending child marriage.
These numbers can be reduced soon, however, according to one expert.
"Ending child marriage is doable in a generation or two," said Margaret Hempel, director for the sexuality and reproductive health and rights unit for the Ford Foundation, which recently committed $5 million over five years toward this issue. "Fundamentally, our concern is that child marriage is a violation of a wide range of human rights issues for girls."
Women who are forced to marry young often lose out on valuable educational opportunities and become trapped in a cycle of poverty, experts say. Child marriage leads to higher maternal mortality and morbidity rates and fuels HIV and AIDS epidemics. Organizations like CARE and the Ford Foundation and countries like India and implementing unique strategies to help these young girls break these poverty cycles and live more substantial lives.
Why it happens
Reasons for this complex problem are hard to pinpoint, but Erin Kennedy, advocacy technical advisor for CARE's gender and empowerment unit, said poverty, gender inequality and lack of education are the biggest factors. CARE is a humanitarian organization working closely with poor women to end child marriage and fight global poverty.
"Where this is most prevalent is in the countries that are the poorest of the poor," Kennedy said. "These practices are also taking place where there is limited opportunity for women and young girls."
She noted that Niger has the highest rates of early and forced marriage and that it is also one of the poorest countries in the world.
"All around the world parents really want what's best for their children," Kennedy said. "But when there is scarcity in food and education is hard to attain, this is sometimes one of the only choices that parents have."
Child marriage is also prevalent in communities that offer few roles for women outside of marriage in the domestic realm, so gender inequality becomes a large part of the issue, Kennedy said.
There is also a distinction between child marriage and forced marriage, said Jennifer Schlecht, senior program officer for the sexual and reproductive health program of the Women's Refugee Commission, an advocacy organization that looks at child marriage through the lens of displacement. Not all young women are forced into marriage. Those who do choose to enter a marriage before 18, however, usually have no other option, she said.
"Marriage is seen to bring economic stability or the hope of economic gain," she said. "In some contexts young girls may want to enter a child bride relationship because their parents are unable to provide for them. Young boys also might have dropped out school so they have few options."
Sometimes, there is the feeling that a young boy could potentially offer more to a young girl than her family. These families with a lack of resources often have no other choice, Schlecht said, as they are looking for alternative options to improve living and economic conditions.
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