Every September, global leaders descend on New York for an annual rite of passage. They go to mark the ceremonial opening of the United Nations General Assembly. Often characterized by high-level presidential and prime ministerial speeches, the UNGA is also an opportunity for in-the-trenches progress toward making the world a better place. One such opportunity will take place this Wednesday, Sept. 25.
On that day, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will work to rally support from other countries to tackle an issue whose proper place, really, is in ancient history texts, but sadly continues to plague the world today: the ongoing practice of forcing children, mostly girls, to marry someone against their will. In the developing world, one in three girls takes wedding vows by the time she is 18. That translates into 14 million child marriages per year, often dooming these brides to lifelong servitude and misery. Clearly, child marriage is morally repugnant and a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that marriage requires “free and full consent.” But the issue goes well beyond human rights. Child marriage is a major impediment to poverty reduction and economic development. Child brides are almost always forced to drop their schooling and, thereby, become unable to contribute to achieving broader social and economic goals.
Enabling girls in developing countries to remain in school longer, on the other hand, would have a positive impact on them as well as the countries they live in. If children, especially girls, remain in school until at least age 15, they not only enhance essential reading and arithmetic knowledge but also learn life skills, including an appreciation of their basic rights and how to assert them. As well, those extra years take them through puberty, a time when many girls in the world first confront forced marriages or are shunted away from the classroom to focus on housework and other chores. Indeed, a girl with some secondary education is less likely to marry too young than a girl with only primary education or less. Eradicating child marriage also has significant health benefits, not only for young brides. The earlier a girl becomes pregnant, the higher the risk of death for both her and her children due to pregnancy and childbirth complications. In developing nations, these complications are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19. And infant deaths are 50 per cent more likely in these cases .
Yet the heinous tradition of child and forced marriage is by no means only a developing world phenomenon. In 2012, as many as 1,485 possible forced marriage cases prompted the attention and resources of the U.K. government’s Forced Marriage Unit which has been tasked with combatting the practice of forced marriage within Britain. There are signs this issue has made its mark in Canada as well.