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.
There are laws against this practice in most countries but there is often a lack of enforcement or commitment among community members, Schlecht said. Often the community members will not understand the purpose of the law or the need to abide by it, she said.
"I think there is still progress to be made on the legal side," she said. "The law is probably the first step but there is a lot of community sensitization and mobilization that still is needed around that issue. There does seem to be a gap at this point."
And that gap is not easy to close.
"Because this is so deeply embedded in issues around poverty and cultural and social norms, just changing the law doesn't always lead to a change in the practice," Hempel said.
How it affects girls
"Women who are married this young become invisible in their communities," Hempel said. "So it is both a human rights violation and something that perpetuates the cycle of poverty."
Girls who marry at such an early age normally get pregnant sooner, are at an increased risk for maternal death and have worse reproductive health outcomes, Schlecht said. The risk for HIV also increases in marriages with a large age discrepancy. But lack of education may be the most crippling effect for girls.
"When a girl becomes married and pregnant, rarely is she able to continue school," Schlecht said. "It is then hard for them to earn an independent income so they become dependent on their spouse or family members."
As a result, child brides have limited opportunities and skills, and there is a chance they will become single but still be responsible for a family, Schlecht said. Having babies at such a young age does not help the cause, either.
"The consequences are devastating for young girls," Kennedy said. "Early marriage leads to early child bearing when their bodies are not physically ready."
This leads to a high rate of young girls dying during childbirth or with babies that tend to be unhealthier, she said.
Statistics about child brides are telling. Girls who complete secondary education are six times less likely to be child brides, and child brides are more than twice as likely to be beaten by their husbands, Kennedy said.
Breaking the cycle of young marriage is key to ending the practice in a generation or two, Hempel said. When girls marry later, their children and family members are less likely to marry young, she said.
Awareness and solutions
Awareness of the problem is increasing, as the legal age for marriage has been changed to 18 instead of 15 in most countries, Hempel said. But more is needed to reverse a complex problem.
India is one country that has seen declining rates in child marriage, and that may be due to awareness and the unique approach against it, Kennedy said. India has implemented a cash incentive that is issued to young women. The catch is that they can only redeem it once they reach 18 and have never been married. These are the kind of innovative solutions that may foster change, Kennedy said.
Groups and advocates are looking at the use of mobile technology and media platforms to raise awareness, Hempel said, with positive results.
"One of the factors that helps girls is to connect to other women who are not family members," she said. "So there is potential through cellular technology to help with that."
The U.N. General Assembly established an International Day of the Girl Child to give the issue of child marriage a global stage. The day was celebrated for the first time on Oct. 11.
The day was a success, Kennedy said, and she noted that more than 10,000 letters were sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Twitter hashtags and retweets were in the millions.
Still, raising awareness is only the first step.
"What needs to happen is happening, and awareness is certainly being built," Schlecht said. "But this will need to translate into action and support for programs, because eventually we will need to move to more on-the-ground solutions."
The Ford Foundation has committed to doing just that. The organization is working with NGOs, governments, and rural communities and families to effectively end the practice of child marriage.
"One of The Ford Foundation's real signatures is getting resources to groups on the ground in countries that are affected so they lead in developing solutions," Hempel said. Specifically, Ford is helping organizations in affected countires:
• Raise awareness • Scale up interventions • Build political will • Implement solutions that put girls at the center
When crafting solutions it is essential to put education at the forefront and involve as many different groups as possible, Schlecht said. And these solutions need to be implemented soon, she cautioned.
"Until this problem is fully addressed I am quite concerned about those girls who are married, pregnant and out of school," Schlecht said, "because they become quite invisible in society and quite vulnerable."