Why Is It So Hard to Combat Child Marriage?

Organizations across the globe fight to end the practice, but entrenched traditions, poverty and ineffectual governance stifle the chances for real progress

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Dibyanngshu Sarkar / AFP / Getty Images

Indian brides look on ahead of a mass wedding in Kolkata on February 14, 2012.

Across the developing world, ten million girls are married off each year before the age of eighteen, usually against their will. One in seven of those girls is younger than fifteen. In some places this problem is well known; in India, the efforts of both international and domestic rights groups have started conversations and enabled laws that try to curb this longstanding disturbing practice. But elsewhere, the tradition of child marriage holds firm. The challenges faced by a female child bride are profound: the dwindling of opportunities for education, the loss of any hope for economic independence, the threat of infant mortality—the total narrowing of the girl’s life. And while child marriage is technically illegal in much of the world, laws in many jursidictions are rarely enforced. Years go by and more girls are added to the ranks of those who forfeit their futures to live the life of a child bride.

The Ford Foundation released an interactive world map on child marriage this week that collates and threads together the research of dozens of NGOs across the world. Their project aims to make it easier for both people at home to better grasp the global challenge that child marriage presents and for disparate advocacy groups to see themselves as part of a larger movement. Although the final and long-lasting efforts must be made by national governments themselves, the Ford Foundation feels there is also a place for international groups to provide ties and support. “We believe very strongly that if you’re looking at long term change, there is absolutely a role for outside partners who may bring in certain expertise…[and] help connect groups to resources,” says Margaret Hempel, the director of the organization’s Sexuality, and Reproductive Health and Rights program, “but in the end the lasting solutions will come from the people who are most directly effected.”

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The factors behind the prevalence of child marriage are not wholly surprising: poverty, lack of alternative opportunities for young girls, the wretched state of women’s rights in a country, social unrest, and economic uncertainty can all play a role. Local traditions also contribute to a family’s decision to marry their daughters off at a young age. “Dowry and marriage costs push poor families to marry a girl during other family’s celebrations (to cut down on costs), and as soon as possible so that dowry does not increase,” Dora Giusti, a child protection specialist with UNICEF India’s office in New Delhi, writes in an email. If a girl marries at an early age, she often provides an easier life for her family and, many times, more stability for herself by living in a home where she is not looked upon as an unwelcome economic drain.

Most who work in the field agree that this issue goes significantly deeper than an unenforced law. “Traditionally, girls are seen as ‘properties’ to be transferred from the father’s to the groom’s household,” Giusti writes, “They play no role in the social security of the family once the parents age and are simply seen as a burden.”

In certain societies across the developing world, a girl’s sexuality is seen as an acceptable topic of local judgment. Unmarried women are a liability for family integrity and honor, making it safest for the family and for the girl herself to be immune from such stigma by getting married as close to puberty as possible. It’s a practice that only reinforces a woman’s dependence on men for the rest of her life.

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Hempel hopes that popularizing the wrongs of child marriage will not only help stop it, but it will allow for more open conversations about the whole complex of issues facing women in the developing world. “[Child marriage] is one of the most stark examples of the devaluing of girls and of girls abilities beyond that of being wives and mothers,” Hempel says. Other women’s rights issues — like reproductive rights, economic and educational disparity, and HIV — play controversially in certain cultures, but child marriage sparks worldwide cries of disapproval. Ultimately, it’s about kids. “Fathers want to do right by their daughters, brothers want to do right by their sisters, mothers want to do right by their children,” Hempel says.

In fact, UNICEF and ICRW have done research that shows families in India would be much more willing to send their daughters to school far away if, and only if, other parents they knew were doing this as well. That would remove the potential for outside judgment and dishonor. The Ford Foundation hopes their research will encourage more community leaders to get involved in the lives of these young girls, making it easier for families to make difficult but progressive decisions. Most of all, the girls being effected need to begin speaking openly about the issues, Hempel says. “Some of the most effective [solutions] are finding ways for girls themselves to be able to talk about the future that they want and be visible spokespeople for these changes in their own lives.”

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