Graca Machel and Mary Robinson, City_Press, 20 January 2013
Northern Ethiopia’s Amhara region has a landscape of red soil, small farms and rolling green hills.
Amhara’s 19 million people are poor and rely almost entirely on agriculture.
The region is served by few roads, children rarely get more than a few years of education and they often walk many kilometres to school.
It also has one of the highest rates of child marriage on earth.
Eighty percent of girls in Amhara are married by the time they are 18, half by the age of 15.
This harmful traditional practice affects an estimated 10 million girls around the world every year.
That’s more than 25 000 girls every day.
In Amhara, we met many young women in their late teens and early 20s, some of whom had married as young as eight or 10, and had their first children at 13 or 14.
In one tiny village, sitting in the shade of tall trees, these women and girls explained that, for them, marriage was not a day of happiness.
It was the day they stopped going to school, began living with a man they had never met and started having sex, whether they wanted to or not.
Child marriage is deeply embedded in the social customs of Amhara, as it is in many countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and in some communities in Europe and the Americas.
For thousands of years, families have married girls young.
There are many reasons for this: to protect her and the family’s honour as sex before marriage is seen as shameful; to reduce the economic burden on the family; or to gain a bride price.
In close, traditional communities, social pressure to marry is considerable and a girl not married by 18 often risks being viewed with suspicion, along with her entire family.
Is there a suitable minimum age of marriage?
The widely ratified UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines 18 as the age of adulthood, a standard to which we should all aspire.
The reality of life for most child brides is forced marriage, forced sex, an end to education and few choices about the future.
Early pregnancy and childbirth bring additional risks, with girls under 15 five times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than women aged 20 and older.
Child brides are, therefore, among the most vulnerable people on earth. Rarely accorded any rights, yet expected to assume adult responsibilities at a very young age, they are disempowered, often abused and frequently isolated.
Child brides are also out of the reach of many development programmes that target girls as they are often confined to their homes.
Child marriage perpetuates the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and ill-health.
Bangladesh: Discriminatory Marriage Laws
Ending child marriage is an essential step in advancing both development and respect for basic human rights.
On the basis of data available, we can see the prevalence of child marriage varies starkly between regions and even within countries.
In Africa, for example, countries with very high rates of child marriage, such as Niger (76%), Chad (71%) and Mali (65%), exist alongside others with lower rates, such as Togo (31%) and South Africa (8%).
Similarly, in south Asia the rate is very high in Bangladesh (65%), lower in Sri Lanka (14%) and moderately high in India (48%).
However, India is home to more than a third of all child brides worldwide and in the state of Madhya Pradesh, about 73% of young women are married by age 18.
In Ethiopia, most child marriages occur in the north, where in Amhara, for example, the proportion of young women married by age 18 (80%) greatly exceeds the national rate (49%).
It is the lack of choice and the waste of talent that is the terrible legacy of child marriage.
These vast numbers of girls who continue to marry as children – as many as 100 million in the next decade alone – will become women whose opportunities to fulfil their potential will be curtailed at an early age.
In the course of our research, we spoke with child brides whose testimony deeply moved us.
In Ethiopia, we met a girl of 16 who had married at 15.
When asked about her wedding day (sitting next to her husband, a man well into his 20s), she shyly replied: “It was the day I left school.”
We asked if she could return to school now that she was married.
“No chance,” she replied. “I have to look after him.”
As Archbishop Tutu has pointed out, child marriage is rooted in a way of thinking that men have endorsed for far too long: “Child marriage occurs because we men allow it. 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.”
Child marriage has long been a hidden, unspoken and largely unaddressed crisis.
It sits on the margins of other development challenges: girls’ education, maternal and child mortality, gender-based violence, and the empowerment of girls and women.
We can only speculate why it has remained on the sidelines, despite the vast numbers of girls and women affected.
Perhaps there has been a reluctance to take on a practice that is so bound up in family traditions and cultural practices.
But this is not an adequate response to something that has such a major impact on development challenges and the lives of millions of girls.
Like foot-binding in China, female genital mutilation and slavery, child marriage is a practice we believe has had its day and must end – not only for the sake of the millions of girls affected, but for their families and communities.
Once that change is made, it is irreversible. Those who have had the chance to go to school and marry later are highly unlikely to impose early marriage on their daughters.
For that reason alone, we say that we can indeed end child marriage in a single generation.
» Machel and Robinson are members of The Elders, the independent group of global leaders formed by Nelson Mandela in 2007 to promote human rights. Machel is former education minister of Mozambique. Robinson is former president of Ireland and former UN high commissioner for human rights