Today, November 25, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. According to the United Nations, more than a third of women and girls worldwide experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. In some countries the proportion is at two thirds. More than 130 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation. Child marriage is even more pervasive, with 700 million women living today who married as children. In Africa and South Asia, close to half of girls still marry before the age of 18. These practices are declining, but only slowly.
The widespread negative effects of violence against women have been documented, including in the recent World Bank report Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity. Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth lead 70,000 adolescent girls to die each year according to UNFPA’s State of the World Population report.
The consequences of child marriage, early pregnancy, and violence against women also affect future generations, including the children of girls who marry early and thereby have to curtail their own education. Lower education attainment for mothers has a wide range of potential negative effects for their children. These and other effects are documented not only in the World Bank report just mentioned, but also in other studies, including a study by UNFPA on child marriage.
The good news is that a clear and stronger consensus is emerging to eliminate those practices. On Friday November 21, the human rights committee of the 193-nation General Assembly adopted by consensus (without needing a vote) a resolution urging all states to take the necessary steps to end child, early and forced marriage. Such steps include adopting and enforcing laws banning child marriage, but they should also include providing support and incentives to eliminate the practice.
A total of 118 countries sponsored the resolution, including some of the countries with the highest incidence of child marriage (such as Mali, Ethiopia and the Central African Republic). The resolution will be presented to the full General Assembly for formal adoption in December. While such resolutions are not legally binding, they help in increasing pressure on governments to take concrete measures to eliminate the practice.
Earlier this year, the U.K. government and UNICEF jointly hosted the first Girl Summit in July to mobilize efforts to end child, early, and forced marriage as well as female genital mutilation. At the summit a new three year $4.2 million research effort was announced to better estimate the economist cost of child marriage. Funding is provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. The research effort is being led jointly by the International Centre for Research on Women and the World Bank’s Education Global Practice.
The objective of this research effort is to generate new global, regional and country evidence on the impact of child marriage and especially its associated economic costs. The first phase of the research effort will document the various pathways through which child marriage affects girls, their children and families, their communities, and societies at large. Existing household surveys will be used to measure the impact of child marriage on a range of outcomes and the costs associated with those impacts. In the second phase that will start in July 2015, in-depth data collection and analysis will be carried in three countries to validate the models developed in the first phase. The third phase will start in July 2016 and focus on capacity building and advocacy.
The hope is that this research will inform policymakers not only about the (potentially large) cost of child marriage, but also about the types of interventions that could help eliminate the practice.