A few months ago, in Northern Ethiopia, I met a group of young women who had been married around the age of 10 or 12. Many of them had their first children at 13 or 14. It was shocking for me to realise that there are millions of girls around the world who suffer the same fate every year.
I have to confess that I was simply not aware of the scale and impact of child marriage. 10 million girls a year, 25,000 girls a day, are married without any say in the matter, to men who are often much older than they are. These girls almost always drop out of school to attend to household chores, and when they become young mothers themselves face serious dangers of injury and even death in pregnancy and childbirth. Child marriage robs girls of their childhood, of their basic rights to education, security and health.
I thought I had a pretty good idea of the human rights landscape on this precious earth we share. What I have realised is that these girls are invisible and voiceless, making them some of the most vulnerable, disempowered people on our planet.
Child marriage occurs because we men allow it
It is not enough for me to simply say that their voices should be heard, that more money needs to go towards girls’ education or health services and be done with it. That alone will not change what happens to child brides.
Child marriage occurs because we men allow it. Fathers, village chiefs, religious leaders, decision-makers – most are male. In order for this harmful practice to end, we need to enlist the support of all the men who know this is wrong, and work together to persuade all those who don’t. I met religious leaders in Ethiopia, both Orthodox and Muslim, who speak out publicly against child marriage and teach their flocks that neither Christianity nor Islam endorses child marriage.
I want to find more faith leaders like them, men who will say that child marriage is wrong and should end. I want to find political leaders – also mostly men – and persuade them to empower girls, invest in them, and see the positive transformation that will occur throughout their societies as a result.
Harmful traditions must be challenged
I want to encourage boys to stand up for their sisters, and say that girls have the same rights to go to school, to develop and be everything they can be.
Child marriage is not a religious practice – it is a tradition. There are many good traditions that bind communities together. But traditions are also not static – they evolve. Traditions that are harmful, that have outlived their purpose, must be challenged.
Foot binding disappeared once social views about it were challenged and it was outlawed. Slavery was also defended as a ‘way of life’ – repugnant as that sounds. I remember those who defended apartheid on ‘cultural’ grounds. All these practices have, thankfully, largely disappeared.
Child marriage is also declining – but far too slowly.
Child marriage is not a ‘women’s issue’
At current rates 100 million more girls will be married in the coming decade.
We men cannot treat child marriage as a ‘women’s issue’ and avoid talking about the more sensitive issues associated with it; the sheer scale of this practice demands attention at the highest levels.
The world is blessed with the largest generation of young people in history. Imagine what would happen if the girls of this generation all go to school and had the chance to become teachers, doctors, businesswomen, politicians, religious leaders.
We men have to be bold, to speak the truth and stand up for the rights of girls and women to equality, dignity and the rights we all share.