UK: Minister urges world to tackle child marriage in same way as FGM

[6 March 2014] -

It’s time to break the silence on child marriage and recognise that it is “exploitation as serious as any other form of child abuse”, Britain’s development minister Justine Greening has said.

She called for leaders and campaigners to replicate the recent global effort to tackle female genital mutilation (FGM), which has succeeded in getting the once taboo issue on the international agenda.

“All over the world millions of girls are being forced into marriage, many while they are still children, where they will come under immediate pressure to have children themselves,” Greening said in a speech ahead of International Women’s Day..

“…for these girls, whatever may be the case for their brothers, when they reach adolescence their world shrinks … It is time for us to break the silence and take action.”

Every year, around 14 million girls are forced to marry early or against their will. One in three girls in the developing world is married by 18, one in nine by 15 and some as young as eight.

Child marriage deprives girls of education and opportunities, jeopardises their health and increases the risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.

Greening cited the case of an 8-year old Yemeni girl who reportedly died on her wedding night from internal injuries after being married last year to a man five times her age.

Beat the Drum

The minister said early marriage had generally been considered “too difficult, too taboo and maybe too entrenched” to tackle, but things were beginning to change.

“As with FGM, we are starting to hear voices across the developing world saying enough is enough. We must support them,” she told Tuesday evening's event at London's South Bank centre, hosted by charity Plan UK, campaign group Girls Not Brides and the Gender and Development Network.

She called for Britain to “beat the drum internationally” and play a leading role in galvanising action to end child marriage.

“I want to replicate the success that DFID and others are having on FGM,” she added, referring to the Department for International Development.

Her comments came on the same day Britain agreed a law which means DFID must consider gender equality before it funds any project.

Greening said early marriage was not just a tragedy for the girls, but also “a disaster for development”.

“Girls who marry young are more likely to be poor and stay poor,” she said.

They are more likely to contract HIV from older husbands, said Greening. Those who give birth before 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than girls in their 20s. Their babies are also far more likely to die in their first year.

Delaying marriage, which enables girls to improve their education, health and job opportunities,  not only helps them move out of poverty, but can also transform the lives of their own children, giving families the chance to break cycles of poverty that pass from generation to generation.

“For as long as girls are being locked out of progress - valued only for their bride price - a country cannot develop properly. Transforming her future, means transforming the future of whole communities and countries,” Greening added.

She said DFID was already working with communities to stop early and forced marriage, and cited the success of a project in Ethiopia aimed at keeping girls in school which has already seen 600 marriages cancelled.

But forced marriage is not just an issue in the developing world. She said Britain was about to make forced marriage a crime. Some studies suggest that 5,000-8,000 forced marriages happen every year in Britain.

Lakshmi Sundaram, global coordinator of Girls Not Brides, said organisations working on the ground to end child marriage often faced strong opposition and death threats. But she said it should be possible to end the practice in a generation.

“We’ve seen that when girls do have the opportunity to not get married when they are children, and have the opportunity to go to school … it’s so unlikely that they will marry off their own daughters. So, we can break this cycle.”

Emma Batha

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