Every year, 15 million girls get married before the age of 18. That’s one girl every two seconds. Child brides usually have to drop out of school, perpetuating the cycle of poverty, and they are five times more likely to die in childbirth. These dire figures are even worse in crisis situations. Mabel van Oranje, the chair of Girls Not Brides, explains how educating girls can increase the age of marriage over time.
Women and Girls Hub: What are the biggest repercussions of child marriage?
Mabel Van Oranje: It’s not only a human rights abuse, but it’s also having a huge impact on development. These girls are normally pulled out of school, they have babies at an early age, so you see a lot of problems. Imagine a 13-year-old giving birth to a full-grown baby. That’s the reality across the world. As soon as there are disasters or crisis situations, we often see child marriage rates go up.
There’s a story of a girl from Syria. She was a very bright pupil, she was loving school, and she wanted to be an architect. She had to flee, and being in a camp in Lebanon, her parents felt that it was very insecure, and there was a lot of sexual harassment and other dangers. And so the parents said, “I’m sorry, we’re going to marry you off.” And so she had to leave school, and she’s now living with her husband who is a stranger.
In the case of Syria, before the war, the child marriage rate was only 13 percent. That was relatively low, because in the developing world, one out of every three girls is married before she’s 18.
Women and Girls Hub: In humanitarian crisis zones, what is leading to greater incidences of child marriage?
Van Oranje: The rates of child marriage in refugee camps are skyrocketing. Two to three times more girls get married, and I don’t think that parents do that because they want to harm their children. In fact, I think that every parent wants the best for their children. But these parents are desperate. They are either so poor that they think they need to marry their daughters off at a young age so they have one less mouth to feed, or they are worried about her security, especially her sexual security, and that the girl might get pregnant, which would bring shame on the family. So they marry the daughters off before the girls get sexually harassed by the men living in the camps. But we know that once they are married off, marriage is not a safe place for these girls.
Women and Girls Hub: If a girl gets married young, how does it impact the rest of her life, especially when it comes to her education?
Van Oranje: Child marriage is both a driver and a consequence of lack of education. What you see is, in some places, because there is no education, the girls are hanging around and therefore, the parents feel it’s safer to marry them off. But in other places, because the girls do get married, they’re pulled out of school, and therefore don’t get an education. In refugee situations, and also in normal, stable circumstances, if you keep a girl in school, the chances that she’ll get married decrease substantially. So, education is one of the very best ways to avoid child marriage.
Women and Girls Hub: Why can education reduce rates of child marriage across the board?
Van Oranje: There are multiple ways in which educating girls helps to avoid child marriage. First of all, a girl who learns more is better equipped to be a citizen who earns money and contributes, not just to her own family and community, but to her country. And a well-educated girl helps to create a more prosperous world in the end.
Also, girls are in a safe place in school. And that means there is less chance of sexual harassment, and that also helps to reduce the risks that they will be forced to marry at an early stage.
Education is not only good for the girls, but this is also a really wise investment for the world. For each additional year that a girl spends in school, her earning power increases by 10, 15 percent. Imagine if you keep a girl for six more years in school, she can make almost double the money later in her life than she otherwise would. And when she earns a salary later in life, she’ll spend almost 90 percent of that on her family. So, it is actually good for the world, if we want to end poverty, to make sure that girls get educated.
Women and Girls Hub: So, what are the best ways to solve this issue? What needs to be done to start getting people to rethink marrying off their daughters at a young age?
Van Oranje: We need to start acknowledging that child marriage takes place in crisis situations. Whether it’s a man-made crisis like war, or whether it’s a natural crisis, like an earthquake or a tsunami, the world tends to give humanitarian assistance on the basics.
And of course these are important things – housing, clothing and basic healthcare. As a world, we would all be better off if we also made education part of the package of humanitarian assistance. Yes, it might cost quite a bit of money, but it is a wise investment. Otherwise, what happens is that girls who are not in school in refugee situations will get married off.
We need laws everywhere that say that a girl can’t marry until she’s 18, and we need to make sure that these laws get implemented, because many countries do already have those laws.
We have to teach the people who are influential in the lives of these girls – the fathers, teachers and local religious leaders – to realize that marrying off the girls is not a good thing for the girl or the community.
We also need to make sure that there is sexual education and contraceptives, so that girls who get harassed by men don’t end up pregnant and therefore are forced into marriage.
Women and Girls Hub: How much money or financial support would it take for the world to get child marriage to stop?
Van Oranje: The additional money to end child marriage is not that big. Because a lot of things that will really help end child marriage, for example, education, need to be financed anyway. As long as we are smart and integrate child marriage into these programs – whether it’s health programs or education programs that are taking place anyway – we get a double return.
We shouldn’t just look at the cost of solving child marriage, but we should also look at the cost of inaction. There have been some early studies on what the cost of not ending child marriage would be. For a country like Niger – which is one of the poorest countries on earth and three out of every four girls is married by the age of 18 – it’s calculated that if child marriage ends, the country would earn $25 billion over a 15-year period. That’s an enormous amount.