1 in 9 girls marry before age 15 and here's what to do about it
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.
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
Child marriage is likely when girls and women are treated as commodities, and young, virginal girls can fetch higher bride prices that bring families much-needed money.
"More desirable girls get matched up earlier," said Glinski. They get snatched up when they are sexually pure and "young, good workers, energetic, and fertile," she said. "They have more to give to a potential partner."
Faith Phiri, a Malawian fighting child marriage in her country with her nonprofit Girls Empowerment Network, puts a finer point on it: "When they see a girl child, in our country, you don't think of anything else but marriage," she told NPR, noting that child brides are often treated like servants.
Girls are not emotionally or physically prepared to be successful wives and mothers while they are still developing. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women over 20. Their children are 50 percent more likely to die in the first year of life, according to Girls Not Brides.
Girls married before 18 are more likely to be beaten or raped by their husbands, and in a study in Ethiopia, 81 percent of child brides described their sexual initiation as "forced," according to Girls Not Brides.
Mothers and grandmothers are key disruptors in breaking the cycles of practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation because it's often their duty to carry on the tradition. The Grandmother Project in Senegal works with matriarchs to educate them and influence males in the community to make changes.
"Women and mothers who have gone through it know that it will be traumatic for their daughters, but they don't know what alternatives there are," said Glinski. "We have to change the ways girls are viewed and valued."
Giving girls a voice and a choice
Training local community health and empowerment workers to meet with girls in small-group workshops helps girls and their families reimagine possibilities for their future has been helpful, said Glinski.
Silvia Dutchevici, a therapist who has worked with clients forced into child marriages, and founder of Critical Therapy Center in New York, teaches her clients critical thinking skills. Many times girls don't have any say, but even if they did, often they feel "coerced" into marriage because it's what their communities and families expect of them, she said.
"Critical thinking helps people consider if they think something is right, or if it's a reaction," she said. "Is this based on what you think is best, or on what someone else told you is best?"
Many child brides have never been asked what they want or what they think, she said. She worked with one girl who was 13, who was being sent to Yemen to be married. She was "excited" because it was what her family wanted, Dutchevici said.
And yes, Dutchevici said, child marriage happens in the U.S. Some of her clients come from ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York or Muslim communities. Their treatment has a lot of overlap with torture victims that she used to work with, she said. Both have to do with a broken bond of human trust and relationships, but those in forced marriages have been betrayed by their families, not strangers.
"With forced marriage, people can't trust their family or friends," said Dutchevici. "That is a deeper sense of betrayal that takes longer to heal."
Believe in change
It's easy to turn away from issues like child marriage because like female genital mutilation, it's unpleasant to think about and so widespread that it's easy to feel powerless. But change is happening, said Glinski, and it is "inspiring and hopeful" to see changes in the girls she works with.
In the community work she did in Egypt, girls would be asked light questions such as how many children they want, or what kind of man they wanted to marry.
"They would just stare blankly — they couldn't answer the question," she said. "They were accustomed to taking what was given to them."
Having those dialogues led to a "huge shift in confidence," said Glinski.
"Development is slow and frustrating, but work now will lead to change for these girls' children," she said. "She may not delay her own marriage, but she might delay her daughter's."
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