Kanie Siu calls for a pledge to eliminate child marriage, as it not only deprives girls of their rights to health and education, but can prove life-threatening for underage mothers and their infants.
Child marriage is an abuse of human rights. It deprives girls of their fundamental rights to health and education, and forces them into a life of poor prospects. Despite being prohibited by international law, the practice remains widespread. Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18, or one every two seconds.
In August, I visited Ha Giang, Vietnam, where nearly half of the girls are child brides, due to poverty and social norms. I met Bang, a 16-year-old mother of two, a school dropout at 12 and pregnant at 14. “I didn’t have any choice but to get married,” Bang said bluntly. Sadly, marriage did not give her a way out of poverty. Without an education, Bang can only spend her days taking care of the family.
What follows child marriage is early pregnancy, which can be life-threatening for both mother and child. A World Health Organisation report says complications in pregnancy are the leading cause of death globally among females aged 15 to 19. Also, the infant mortality rate is 50 per cent higher than that for mothers over 20.
Cau, 16, never went to school. Married at 15, she gave birth soon after, but her newborn contracted tetanus. Lacking proper maternal knowledge, Cau failed to take her son to the doctor, and he died. Stories such as these highlight the pressing need to stop the harmful practice of child marriage.
According to a report from the World Bank and the International Centre for Research on Women, if child marriage can be eliminated by 2030, the gains in annual welfare from lower population growth could top US$500 billion. The report also reaffirms education as one of the most effective strategies against early marriage, with each year of education reducing the likelihood by 5 per cent.
Plan International is working with local governments to address child marriage through socio-economic measures and legal reform. For example, a “Girls’ Club” set up in Ha Giang teaches girls about the use of contraceptives, as well as to recognise the harmful results of child marriage and the importance of education. Boys are also engaged in the activities, to make the fight everyone’s cause.
During the past 30 years, heartening progress has been made. Globally, one in four women alive today were married in childhood versus one in three in the early 1980s. With advocacy efforts, countries like Honduras and the Dominican Republic have enforced an outright ban on child marriage. Yet, there is still much unfinished business.
On October 11, the International Day of the Girl Child, let’s step up efforts to eliminate child marriage, so as to empower girls to reach for their dreams and live to the fullest.
Kanie Siu is chief executive officer of Plan International Hong Kong