I once had a conversation with a thirteen year old girl in Amhara, Ethiopia. Two nights prior, her best friend was forced to wed an adult man she had never met. “She screamed and hung onto the doorway of her house,” she told me as she recalled what had happened to her best friend since first grade. “But her uncles pulled her away and forced her to stand at the altar.” As I listened, I asked the inevitable question of why. “They couldn’t feed her. She said she would rather starve than be married, but her parents couldn’t handle that. So they forced her to marry.”
As the world’s financial leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland this week for the annual World Economic Forum, I can’t help but wonder if those meeting in that famous ski resort town can hear the plight of married girls and those whose childhood is about to meet that adult fate.
Tradition is often cited as a cause of early marriage, and it often is. But the economics of child marriage perpetuate the practice even among families who oppose it. UNICEF statistics reveal that globally, child marriage is most common among the poorest 20% of the population. Among poor families with daughters, marriage helps alleviate financial strain by giving parents one less mouth to feed. In many cultures, the family of the bride receives a bride price, which is a payment from the groom. The act of giving money may be cultural, but the need- a need that drives fathers to marry off their daughters at an increasingly younger age- is economic. WHO states that “although early marriages are often said to reflect traditional cultures, the pressures that lead to early marriage are present day.”
When families do not have enough food for all of their children, they often prioritize the youngest. Adolescent girls tend to eat the least and last, making marriage seem like a better option. “Maybe,” one mother of a child bride told me in rural Ethiopia, “she will have a better life with him. All we can give her is what remains from my husband’s plate.” Poverty creates situations of desperation in which the best option for the family is one that horrifies those of us who will never have to decide between table scraps and marriage for our middle school girls.
For Davos to hear the plight of these girls, we as a global community must raise our voices. Girls Not Brides, Care International and Plan International are some of the many organizations working to delay marriage age. My own organization, Enhance Worldwide, keeps girls in school and away from the altar. But as long as poverty exists, desperate parents are going to make desperate choices. As the World Economic Forum brings together some of the world’s wealthiest business leaders, I write this in hopes that they might remember child brides who live on the shadow side of global economics.