NEW YORK—Ghulam, age 11, sits on the floor at her home in Afghanistan. She stares at the 40-year-old man sitting next to her, without a smile on her face. While the man is old enough to be her father, he is not—he is about to become her husband.
“As she enters this union, she will leave her childhood behind forever and begin a life with no future, prospects, or promise,” Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said from the U.N. on Thursday.
“She will most likely never get an education, becoming a mother before her young body is ready to sustain a pregnancy or simply give birth.”
Ghulam is one of some 37,000 girls under the age of 18 who are forced into childhood marriage every day, frequently with men significantly older than themselves. Often fathers exchange their daughters for money or goods, or marry them off due to longstanding cultural traditions.
“While marriage would normally be the time to celebrate the union of two people, for millions of these girls, it is anything but,” Osotimehin said.
Childhood marriage, which can affect girls as young as 5, has dire consequences, including jeopardizing their right to an education and impacting their health and development.
Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, state minister for Women and Children Affairs in Bangladesh, expressed the urgency of the problem.
“The risk of death in pregnancy and delivery from birth under the age of 15 years is five times more than for a woman in her 20s,” she said.
In the next decade, 14.2 million girls younger than 18 will be wed every year, primarily in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. With those numbers only expected to rise, UNFPA hopes to put a stop to the practice by 2030 through education, outreach, and changing laws.
The United Nations marked the first observance of the International Day of the Girl Child Thursday, a global day to highlight, celebrate, and discuss ways to advance girls’ lives, with a panel of experts discussing ways to end childhood marriage.
Creating laws to raise the legal age for both boys and girls to age 18 is one step, but challenging deeply rooted cultural traditions that will raise the value of women to be on par with their male counterparts is one of the biggest obstacles.
“Gender inequality is the root of child marriage,” Dr. Michelle Bachelet, executive director for U.N. Women, said.
In countries where childhood marriage is most prevalent, women and girls are often seen as less valuable. They are viewed as a burden and poor families see childhood marriage as a way to have one less mouth to feed.
When asked how to go about changing the thinking behind cultural traditions, Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland (1990–1997), said, “I believe it is important not to use the word ‘cultural’ in relation to [the] tradition of child marriage. It is man-made—and I use the word ‘man-made’ deliberately.”
Robinson said establishing evidence that women are valuable, particularly on an economic level, will help curb those notions.
Geeta Rao Gupta, deputy executive director of UNICEF, agrees that the economic argument is important and one to strongly consider when shaping policy. However, she said the issue at hand should not be forgotten.
“That [economic] argument should not undermine the moral outrage that this particular issue is all about—it’s a gross human rights violation of young girls,” she said.
Changing the ways of thinking, not just the laws, will be necessary to eradicate the problem, said Ghaicha Salamatou Agali, a youth activist from Niger who escaped child marriage.
In 2005, a 16-year-old Agali was to marry a 50-year-old man who already had a wife and five children. She wanted to continue her studies and was opposed to polygamy. With the help of her older brother, she convinced her parents not to go through with the marriage.
“We need to increase public awareness and make them change their attitude, and change their customs and beliefs,” Agali said through a translator Thursday.
Changing customs, cultures, and beliefs may seem like a tall order, but Archbishop Desmond Tutu, founder of Girls Not Brides, said, “Why not? We have ended vicious things like apartheid. There was time we thought it [would] never happen. It has happened!”
A multipronged approach is being used to end child marriage, and some efforts are already in place. Gupta said UNICEF has been providing monetary incentives to help young girls stay unmarried until 18 years. She said research in Malawi showed that giving parents cash to keep girls in school was effective.
In India, some states have issued savings bonds after a girl’s birth, with the promise it can be redeemed for 10 times the value if she makes it to age 18 without being married.
Sometimes it just takes someone to stand up.
Osotimehin said Wednesday he heard the testimony of three young girls from Niger, the country with the highest rate of childhood marriage. The three 15-year-olds took their parents to court to prevent being forced into marriage.
“That is happening now,” Osotimehin said. “If you mobilize communities, educate people, and give them the opportunity to express themselves, it can happen.”
With additional reporting by Charlotte Cuthbertson