Almost half of all girls in South Asia (46%) marry before the age of 18, the UNICEF’s 2014 report, Improving Children’s Lives, noted. “One in five girls (18 percent) are married before the age of 15. These are the highest rates in the world. Moreover, of the global population of women aged 20-24 who married before age 18, more than one third live in South Asia: 24 million out of 68 million in 2010. The highest rate of child marriage is in Bangladesh (where two out of every three girls marry before age 18), followed by India, Nepal and Afghanistan.”
India has the highest absolute number of child brides in the world. Though fewer girls are marrying before the age of 15 today compared to the 1990s — one estimate shows this figure falling from 23.5% to 18.2% by 2005-6 — rates of marriage have increased for girls between ages 15-18 (26.7% to 29.2%). Recent Census data has established that “nearly 17 million Indian children between the ages of 10 and 19—6% of the age group—are married, many of them to older men… This is an increase of 0.9 million from the 2001 census figure.” In Rajasthan, the Census found 15.88% of girls in the age group of 15 to 17 years are married off before they attain the legal age of 18 years.
A few weeks ago, the Bangladeshi Cabinet approved proposals in the draft Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014 that would lower the minimum age of marriage for girls to 16, raising concerns from civil society organisations in the country.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Kofi Annan, Chair of The Elders, warns of the dangers of lowering the minimum age of marriage for girls, their communities and the whole country.
I write on behalf of The Elders, a group of independent leaders working together for peace and human rights. We commend you for the commitments you made to address child marriage in Bangladesh in July of this year at the inaugural Girl Summit, and for hosting a Bangladesh Girl Summit in October. By ending child marriage, there is little doubt that Bangladesh will achieve a healthier, safer and more prosperous future for all its citizens.
We were concerned, however, to learn that the Cabinet has recently approved language in the draft Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014 to lower the minimum age of marriage from 18 to 16 years for girls. Such a change in legislation would be a step in the wrong direction as it would undermine efforts to reduce poverty and improve the welfare of girls and women across Bangladesh. We urge you to maintain the minimum age of marriage for girls at 18 years of age.
Child marriage is a major violation of human rights that holds back girls, their families and their communities. The practice has impeded the achievement of six of the eight Millennium Development Goals. Girls who are married and out of school do not contribute to Bangladesh’s economic development and prosperity, perpetuating cycles of poverty. When girls marry as children, the impact on their health and that of their family is severe. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death in girls aged 15 to 19 in low- and middle-income countries; 90 per cent of adolescent pregnancies take place within the context of marriage. Where girls survive childbirth, they are at increased risk of injury and other complications: 65 per cent of all cases of obstetric fistula, for example, occur in girls under the age of 18. Their children, too, are more vulnerable. Deaths among babies in their first few weeks of life are 50 per cent higher among those born to mothers under 20 years of age than among those born to mothers in their 20s. Likewise, the risk of birth defects, as well as developmental delays and long-term disabilities related to low birth weight, are also higher for mothers under 20. Bangladesh has made impressive progress in improving maternal and child health over the past decade, but this progress will be hindered if the proposal to reduce the age of marriage goes forward.
In 2011, we initiated Girls Not Brides, a global partnership that has since grown to more than 400 civil society organisations working to end child marriage and enable girls to fulfil their potential. Members are based in over 60 countries, including Bangladesh. We launched Girls Not Brides in the belief that ending a problem as prevalent as child marriage can only be achieved in partnership. We encourage you to work with civil society organisations, development partners and others as you develop and resource a national action plan to end child marriage. Bangladesh has an opportunity to lead the way in efforts to address this global problem by demonstrating what can be done to end child marriage and secure a better future for girls.
Chair of The Elders
This Open Letter was first published on the Girls, Not Brides website and may also be read here.