Every year, between the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25 and World Human Rights Day on December 10, activists shine a spotlight on the pandemic of gender-based violence that transcends borders and cultures as part of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.
This year’s campaign hones in on violence in the world of work—and women who were married as children are particularly vulnerable to such violence because of their lack of autonomy, agency and status. It is reinforced and compounded by the violence they face at the hands of their partners.
Every two seconds, a girl’s childhood ends as her marriage begins. For most child brides, it means the end to education and the start of childbearing, caring for household and family and other domestic responsibilities that will last throughout the rest of their lives. It leaves girls vulnerable to health risks such as early and frequent pregnancy and violence at the hands of their husbands and in-laws—and it makes them vulnerable to violence at work.
The failure to address child marriage is costing the world trillions of dollars in untapped contributions from women. Many child brides drop out of school when they are married—limiting their future employment options, as girls who are not in school miss developing critical skills that lead to higher paying and safer work later on in life. Girls who marry early tend to experience greater isolation, fewer opportunities to engage in formal work and significantly less economic security.
In Ethiopia, child marriage reduces a woman’s individual earnings by 9 percent compared to women who do not marry early, largely due to their lack of education. The combined effect of their reduced income has enormous implications not only for girls’ individual economic security, but for the world. Recent research from the World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) demonstrated that child marriage accounted for a loss of potential earnings of $1.6 billion in Ethiopia in 2015 alone.
By 2028, 600 million girls will join the workforce. The job prospects faced by girls who marry early will likely diverge greatly from those available to their peers who are able to delay marriage. Married adolescents are more likely to struggle balancing unpaid care work at home with the need to earn an income, particularly if they are living in poverty; child marriage can also leave a lasting impact on girls’ confidence and their ability to navigate risk, meaning many may be forced to resort to precarious jobs that offer less stability and pose risks to their safety in order to earn a living to support their families’ needs.
For those child brides who do not work outside of the home, or who do work but must also take on a so-called “second shift” as wives, mothers and homemakers, their home environments are more likely to be places of violence than the homes of her unmarried or un-partnered peers. A recent U.N. report found that the home is one of the most unsafe environments for a woman due to intimate partner violence.
We’re making progress in making sure that child marriage is not the only option for girls—a recent UNICEF study suggests that the global community has prevented 25 million child marriages in the last decade. But without greater investments in child marriage policies and programs 150 million girls will be married by 2030. Those 150 million girls who will be pulled out of school and won’t receive the education they need to prepare them to secure the kind of futures they deserve. That number is devastating—for the individual girls and for the world, which will suffer without their full participation.
Many organizations are implementing new and creative programs that empower adolescent girls and equip them with the skills to navigate the workforce and decisions around marriage. International Women’s Health Coalition partner Aahung works with schools and communities to implement their Life Skills Based Education program, introducing children and adolescents to critical age-appropriate information and skills that help adolescents negotiate with their families to stay in school, avoid child marriage and take control of their futures.
CARE partnered with ICRW in Ethiopia’s Amhara region—where almost half of all girls are married by the time they turn 15, and three quarters by age 18—to work with already married girls, along with key community members, to implement proven strategies to address child marriage such as initiatives to empower girls with information, life and economic skills and a support network and provide reproductive health information and services. Girls who received economic skills training took part in Village Savings and Loan Associations to enhance financial literacy, challenge power dynamics and give girls greater control over their lives; girls in the health group learned about things like contraception and sexually transmitted infections.
Girls who received only one of the two interventions still showed significant improvements in skills and knowledge—but the two combined really had remarkable influence on the lives of the girls who participated, their families and the broader community. This work prevented hundreds of potential child marriages from ever occurring and demonstrated the tremendous results that can be achieved by empowering already married girls to gain greater control of their finances and their futures.
We know what to do to end child marriage. The 16 Days Campaign is critical for the awareness it raises, but the international community should not have to rely on efforts like these to bring an end to violence and child marriage and to ensure that all women and girls can participate in safe and equally valued work. Governments, donors and the international community must step up the pace to end child marriage through better and greater policies, financing and political will. In the U.S., we call on lawmakers to prioritize the Keeping Girls in School Act, a bill that tackles the obstacles adolescent girls face in completing their educations and preparing for employment, including child marriage.
It will take more than 16 days—but if governments, U.N. agencies and civil society activists work together toward ending child, early and forced marriage, a world where every girl can control her own future is possible.
Rachel Clement is a Policy Advocate for ICRW and a co-chair for Girls Not Brides USA, the U.S.-based partnership to end child marriage. She leads the organization’s advocacy portfolio on issues related to adolescent girls’ empowerment and addressing child marriage and FGM/C. She also serves as chair of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls. Follow her on Twitter @RachelEClement.
Gayatri Patel is the Senior Policy Advocate for Gender at CARE USA and a co-chair of the Girls Not Brides USA. Gayatri joined CARE after nearly 10 years advising the U.S. State Department on a variety of human rights and humanitarian issues. Follow her @gpatelcareusa.
Katherine Olivera is a Program Associate at the International Women’s Health Coalition and an interim co-chair of Girls Not Brides USA. Katherine provides strategic support for IWHC’s U.S. foreign policy portfolio in Washington, D.C. Follow IWHC @IntlWomen.