New York: Barely 17 years old, Susmita, from Odisha’s Gajapati district, has never gone to school. She rears the few animals her family owns and this is her primary duty besides attending to household chores.
“I have to work in the field, and take the cows out to graze to support my family. When I see other girls from the village going to school, I wish I could experience school for at least a day,” she said when interviewed, “Is anyone out there even thinking of improving our lives?”
It’s hard not to be moved by Susmita’s earnest and important question. This year, more than 60 million 10 year-old girls worldwide will have started their journey through adolescence. Sadly, millions of them will be forced into adult responsibilities.
Puberty brings a whole host of risks to girls’ lives and their bodies, including child marriage and all its consequences. In fact, each day, more than 47,000 girls are married before they turn 18 – a third of them before they turn 15.
Thousands of girls are led away from school and the prospects of decent employment every day. They are often forced to lead a life of domestic servitude and isolation from their family and friends.
In many cases, they are also often subjected to unintended and unsafe pregnancies. The complications from these early pregnancies are among the leading causes of death for adolescent girls aged 15 to 19. In short, they are forced into this life, robbing them of their right to independence, to work and in turn, drive development.
In Odisha, where more than one in three girls will be married before 18, it takes serious commitment and investment to ensure that adolescent girls are not condemned to such a life.
Globally, there are significant hurdles to overcome, and we must address the systematic exclusion faced by girls from before birth via gender-biased sex selection, through adolescence with lower rates of transition to secondary school, denial of their sexual and reproductive health and rights (the right to access contraception without parental or spousal consent, the right to quality maternal health care or the recognition of marital rape as a crime, etc.), and loopholes between customary and statutory laws that permit child marriage.
At the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), we estimate that child marriage is a reality faced by 17.4 million girls each year. But if we speak up and act, there is a possibility for millions of girls to lead a different life, one of their own choosing.
The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which includes a target on eliminating child marriage, presents us with an historic opportunity to help girls rewrite their futures.
This March, UNFPA and UNICEF launched the Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, which – working together with many girls themselves – will bring us that much closer to delivering on the world’s commitment to ending this practice.
In five years, the programme will support more than 2.5 million adolescent girls at risk of, and affected by child marriage, helping them to express and exercise their choices.
It will empower girls in South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Nepal), the Middle East (Yemen), West and Central Africa (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Niger), Eastern and Southern Africa (Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia) with protective health, social and economic independence, and ensure that they can develop their abilities, so as to realise their full potential.
It will also contribute to a demographic dividend, which is the economic growth you can achieve by empowering, educating and employing a country’s youth. Recognising that girls’ households and communities are of the utmost importance, we will work with them to ensure they invest in their daughters.
At the UN, we continue to partner with national governments to improve health, education, and other systems, and to ensure the law protects and promotes girls’ rights, including their sexual and reproductive health.
With the support of UNFPA and countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and Canada, Susmita’s own government and local partners, she now has the opportunity to participate in a programme designed to help her and her family delay marriage.
Giving her knowledge about her health and rights, the confidence to express herself, a mentor, friends, and the opportunity to enrol in an appropriate school. With this support she can set her life on a different path. We must deliver better for more girls like Susmita, despite the many needs, challenges and crises facing us today, girls’ and women’s rights must remain a priority.
We now know about the kinds of investments needed to uphold these rights. Indeed, this is the foundation for a safer, more equitable and just world, not only for girls, but for all.
Babatunde Osotimehin is the executive director of the UNFPA and under-secretary-general of the UN.
This article originally appeared at the Inter Press Service.