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1 in 9 girls marry before age 15 and here's what to do about it

Published: Saturday, Aug. 16 2014 5:30 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 19 2014 2:04 a.m. MDT

A child bride carrying her child in Amhara, Ethiopia. The photo was taken in March 2013.

International Center for Research on Women

Destaye was 11 years old when she was married.

Her husband, a priest and a farmer in his village in Ethiopia, said he chose her because he didn't want a girl who had finished school, then she might be "too old" and might not be a virgin. He told her that she would get to continue school after their wedding, but she got pregnant at age 14 and never went back to class.

Destaye, who was featured in a short film made by Jessica Dimmock and photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair of the Too Young To Wed organization, is one of millions of girls around the world who are married as children — in developing countries, it's estimated that 1 in 9 marry before age 15, according to the International Center for Research on Women.

Child marriage was put in the spotlight at last week's Girl Summit conference in the UK and U.S.-Africa Summit with the White House at the U.N. Foundation in Washington, D.C., where experts and officials are calling for an end to the practice in one generation. It's a big goal, but recent studies shine a light on how to solve it.

Fighting poverty

Child marriages are caused by a mix of economics, culture and sexism, said Allison Glinski, gender and development specialist at ICRW who has conducted research with girls at risk of early marriage in Egypt. But girls from poor, rural households are the most vulnerable: "Sometimes their families just can't feed one more mouth," she said.

Child marriages are most common in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Niger tops the list with 75 percent of girls married before age 18, and Chad and Bangladesh follow with with over 60 percent. Child marriage is also fairly prevalent in Latin America and parts of the Caribbean. The most common driver across locations is poverty: "We know that girls in the poorest households are three times more likely to become child brides," said Glinski.

More than half of the girls in Bangladesh, Mali, Mozambique and Niger are married before age 18. In these same countries, more than 75 percent of people live on less than $2 a day, according to ICRW reports.

Economic incentives like conditional cash transfers — programs that give money to households that keep their kids in school, or make regular visits to the doctor, for example — can also work to keep girls in class until they are old enough to graduate.

One program in Ethiopia gives income-generating incentives like sheep or hens to girls who stay in school and delay marriage. More than 12,000 girls are in the program, and participants are more more likely to stay in class, put off marriage and are better educated about sex and reproductive health, according to the UN Foundation.

Invest in girls

Child brides are cut off from education and learning skills or trades, and they are more likely than their peers to remain poor — over 60 percent of child brides in developing countries have had no formal education, according to Girls Not Brides.

This perpetuates intergenerational poverty because they are then less likely to send their own girls to school.

Girls also need skills and support networks, said Glinski: "Teaching livelihood and self-confidence can open up life opportunities," she said.

Programs that gather girls into groups to interact with others their own age combat isolation and give them access to health resources and skills training like seamstress work, basket weaving and baking, or selling produce at local markets. These programs also teach girls how to market and price their goods and reinvest in a business.

Changing how girls are viewed and valued

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