Those of us who have had the privilege of working with and for girls in the developing world know how much they have to contribute to their families and communities. And we believe it’s time the world began to pay more attention to what girls have to say and to give them a chance.
Girls stand at the doorstep to adulthood. If given a chance, they can be teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs and so much more.
What does it mean to give girls a chance? It means providing girls the opportunity to lead healthy, productive lives so they can achieve their goals without fear of violence. It means tackling social and institutional norms that limit girls’ futures by devaluing their roles in society. And it means guaranteeing girls’ rights to education, health care, personal safety, economic security, and citizenship.
Child marriage is one of the starkest examples of how we fail to give girls a chance. Girls who are married as children, have fewer educational and economic opportunities, they are more vulnerable to HIV, high-risk pregnancies, and violence. Despite these negative consequences, young girls are married every day around the world. In fact, one in three girls in the developing world is married before her 18th birthday. If current trends continue, 142 million girls will be forced to marry early against their will in the next decade and the world will miss out on experiencing their great contributions. This means a generation of girls will be denied the chance to make their own decisions about their own lives.
Why is child marriage so pervasive?
One of the most common reasons, which transcends cultures and geographic areas, is that girls are simply not valued as much as boys. As a result, poor families sometimes marry off their young daughters to reduce the economic burden of yet another mouth to feed.
In Ethiopia, where marriage before age 18 is illegal, the practice continues in secret and subjects girls to a life of social isolation and subservience. These adolescent girls often lack the opportunity to get an education and do not have access to reproductive health services that would help them determine if, and how many, children she wants to have. Consequently, girls who have barely reached puberty find themselves becoming mothers—which is dangerous for both the parent and child.
These are all devastating consequences. But they are not inevitable.
At the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) we have found that programs to increase the value of girls and delaying marriage do work to improve the lives of adolescent girls.
The ABAD program, which translates to “Our Daughters our Wealth,” was implemented in the Indian state of Haryana in 1994 as a way to increase the value of girls. The state-sponsored conditional cash transfer program provided families of newborn girls a savings bond, which the girl can cash once she turns 18, provided she is unmarried. ICRW is evaluating the program, and our first round of results shows that girls who participated in the program were more likely to be in school than girls who did not. Our evaluation is showing that financial incentives can succeed in changing behavior and can make a difference in the opportunities that girls are afforded.
While programs like ABAD demonstrate there is promise in incentivizing delayed marriage, there are tens of millions of girls who are already wed and need support.
Programs like TESFA in Ethiopia show promise in terms of improving the lives of young brides. Designed and implemented by CARE Ethiopia, TESFA formed peer groups of extremely marginalized married adolescent girls and provided them with essential information about financial literacy, savings and loans, and sexual and reproductive health. TESFA, which means “hope” in Amharic, also worked with the girls’ husbands, in-laws, and other community members to begin to transform the way that girls are seen and treated in their households and communities. ICRW’s evaluation of the program found that the lives of married adolescent girls were significantly improved by their participation in the program because the girls and their community were able to better understand and rectify the negative implications of childhood marriage.
These programs in India and Ethiopia are just a snapshot of efforts that are improving girls’ lives around the world. And while there are different approaches at work, the programs have one thing in common:
When we give girls a chance, girls, their family and their community are awarded with a world of possibilities to empower others and end poverty.
Visit www.icrw.org to learn more about child marriage and other issues affecting women and girls around the world.