UPDATED: March 8, 2013, 6:15 p.m. EST
Humaiya, a 16-year-old from Bangladesh, hasn't yet worn the traditional wedding rituals such as kohl-painted eyes or a gauzy gold and ruby veil. Her mother and her grandmother were both child brides, but the cycle has stopped with Humaiya.
Though her father wanted to marry her off at age 13, her mother and a group of advocates intervened, Humaiya told The Huffington Post. She says she knows she's lucky -- as of International Women's Day Friday, 13.5 million girls have been married before they turned 18, according to a new study by World Vision, an international charity.
"Women have no rights to give an opinion in the family," Humaiya said. "My father didn't listen."
Half of all girls living in the world's 51 least-developed countries have been married before the age of 18, according to the U.N. The World Vision study, released to coincide with International Women's Day on March 8, found that such marriages are on the rise due to an increase in global poverty and crises. Researchers highlighted that parents living in areas prone to political instability or natural disasters are more likely to marry off their daughters at a young age, largely due to fear from these crises. Children living in these areas, such as South Sudan or Somalia, are also more likely to be forced into child marriage, the study said.
Erica Hall, Child Rights Policy director at World Vision, explained that the root causes of child marriage -- poverty and gender inequality -- are being exacerbated.
"Worldwide, there are increases in security issues and increases in natural disasters linked to global warming," Hall said. She cited the recent humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region of North Africa and Somalia due to drought and political unrest as an example in which many girls often quit school and are sent to work as domestic workers or are married, to reduce the burden on their families.
For Bangladeshi families such as Humaiya's, drought and lack of food are the primary reasons to discharge a young girl from her home. One of the most unjust impacts of this is education inequality. World Vision's research in Bangaldesh revealed that girls who were unable to attend school due to disruptions from natural disasters were more likely to marry early.
Humaiya speaks out about child rights issues such as early marriage and became an advocate through World Vision, which introduced Humaiya to HuffPost. She said she knows that her ongoing education in Bangladesh is rare. Some 66 percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before age 18, according to World Vision. Humaiya works to educate her peers in her village and speaks to government leaders, asking them to do more to stem child marriage and provide greater education opportunities.
But Humaiya told The Huffington Post that she has seen many of her friends married off, and described how disconnected she feels from the girls she has been friends with for five or more years.
"Now they are good cooks," she said. "They are like my mother, even though we are the same age. I don't know how to manage a family, but they know."
She explained that her mother was 16 when she was forced to get married, and lost a son by the time she was 18 years old.
In Bangladesh, the law is that girls can't marry until they're 18 and boys can't marry until they're 21. But the rules are not implemented, Hall said.
"The law is not the problem," she pointed out. "You have to have political will to do that and capacity and understanding among law enforcement. The goal is to get governments to enforce these things, and -- this is such an NGO word -- but it has to be a holistic approach."
Hall pointed out that requiring marriage registration and working on a grassroots community level is key to creating systemic change. She cited examples such as the Grandmother's Project in southern Senegal, a nonprofit partner of World Vision that focuses on reducing early marriage, female genital mutilation and early pregnancy by creating an intergenerational dialogue about how to shift the gender-role paradigm.
"That's been successful -- you know how grandmothers are -- in getting an idea like that across that it doesn't have to be part of the tradition," Hall said.
World Vision also works with religious leaders to address the practice of child marriage.
"There is a strong foundation in religion that children should be protected and they don't want girls dying in childbirth and these leaders say, 'This is a tenet of our faith and this is why we are going to start speaking out against it,'" Hall explained.
The issue of child marriage has gained momentum outside of the NGO world as well. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last October a public-private initiative that focuses on ending child marriage by increasing education opportunities, providing training among officials and tracking every country's legal minimum age of marriage -- in particular in Humaiya's home country of Bangladesh.
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