Let Girls Be Girls, Not Brides

(Photos by Willow Gerber/MSH)

Cross-posted with permission from LMGforHealth.org.

By Willow Gerber

Every year, an estimated 14 million girls are forcibly married before they turn 18 . . . that’s something like 39,000 girls every day! That’s the first thing I heard as I walked into the late afternoon session on child marriage presented at the Women Deliver Conference in Kuala Lumpur this week. Beyond the moral question of this issue, there are huge health and welfare implications. Low- and middle-income countries are now focusing on girl brides and child marriage because they recognize that they can’t reach their development goals otherwise. Donor countries are also interested for similar reasons; child marriage has an enormous impact on economic development and global health.

Among the panelists at this session, aptly titled “Let Girls be Girls, Not Brides,” were Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda (World YWCA), Suzanne Petroni (International Center for Research on Women), Lakshmi Sundaram (Global Coordinator for the Girls Not Brides campaign), and Sarita Prabhakar Wagh, a young woman from India who convinced her parents not to marry her off while she was still a girl. Each presented compelling research and information that was beyond belief. A study by Anita Raj, PhD, on the prevalence of child marriage and its impact on fertility in India suggests that just a 10 percent drop in child marriage could lead to a 70 percent drop in maternal mortality. In developing countries, the leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 years old is complications from pregnancy and childbirth. This situation of “bonded labor,” as it’s sometimes described, also contributes to high morbidity rates, lower literacy rates, and harmful social norms where girls continue to be under-valued.

Young girls are fortunate when support comes from those at home. Ms. Wagh told the audience that her father said about her when she was young, “Until she is well educated, we will not even discuss marriage!” She credited her father for her own emancipation, and said he was extremely supportive.

As health professionals, many of us are aware that higher numbers of girl brides mean higher morbidity, higher maternal and child mortality, higher risk of HIV and AIDS, higher vulnerability to domestic violence, lower rates of literacy, So how can health leaders, managers, and policy-makers help, particularly if they work in one of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage (that includes Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Bangladesh, Guinea, Mozambique, Mali, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, and Malawi)? They can do three things:

  1. First and foremost, they can help prevent it by letting parents know the health dangers associated with child marriage.
  2. Just as importantly, they can provide sexual and reproductive health information and contraception to the young girls (and boys) who are already married.
  3. They can also ensure that health workers get the knowledge and skills they need to understand the adverse effects of early marriage, and promote a supportive environment for child brides who enter the health system so that they are not stigmatized.

To learn more and get the facts, go to www.girlsnotbrides.org.

MSH, Girls Not Brides, and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) organized the “Let Girls Be Girls, Not Brides: Working Together to End Child Marriage” session held on Tuesday, May 28.