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Let's End Child Marriage in a Generation

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At the NoVo Foundation, we know that prioritizing girls and women is one of the most fundamentally sound methods of changing our world for the better. We've learned that helping girls and women help themselves raises living standards for everyone.

Each year a girl stays in school boosts her future income by 10 to 20 percent. And since girls and women are likely to invest 90 percent of their income in their families -- as opposed to a man's 30 to 40 percent -- the education and empowerment of girls and women has an impact that ripples across a society.

So what happens to girls early in their life makes a huge difference. On a learning trip to Ethiopia, where 49 percent of girls are married before they are 18, I came face to face with one of the biggest challenges that holds back the world's female population and keeps countries mired in poverty: child marriage.

Speaking with a group of Ethiopian girls, I got a lifetime's education in a single afternoon. I sat and listened as girl after girl described to me how they had become the wives of much older men. One woman told me she fled after being told she was going to be married at the age of four! She ran away crying in terror and heartbreak, only to return to her village after realizing she had no options whatsoever.

All of these girls had been forced to leave school in favor of working in their in-laws' homes and bearing children while still children themselves. And none of these girls had wanted this fate. They all had hoped to go to school and grow up with their friends and families.

Little was being done on an international level to recognize -- much less halt -- this practice, which violates the human rights of girls in many ways. So when The Elders, a group of eminent global leaders, established a global campaign to end child marriage in a generation, NoVo offered early support for the initiative, along with the Nike Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

The campaign, Girls Not Brides, will recruit non-governmental organizations, as well as governments, the private sector, and individuals around the world to work for a day when no girl is married before the age of 18 and to raise the profile of the issue. We announced the launch of the initiative this week at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City.

The campaign will be global in scope and assertive in nature to meet this enormous problem head-on. Despite the limited publicity about it, child marriage is not an isolated or uncommon practice. It is in fact so widespread as to be commonplace in many parts of the world. Studies estimate that one-third of underage girls in the developing world are married, 10 million new brides joining their ranks every year. In Niger, the country in which child marriage is most common, fully three-quarters of girls under 18 are wives.

Child marriage amounts to a socially sanctioned method of abduction and rape. Forcing any person -- not to mention an underage girl -- into marriage violates the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the nearly universally ratified UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Child marriage also violates girls' basic rights to health, education, and security.

Girls in marriages instead of in school are not able to learn skills that could help them pull their families from poverty or provide them some measure of independence. Their health is put in danger: Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties, and those 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die. With virtually no power to reject unwanted sex, child brides are more likely to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases than unmarried, sexually active girls the same age. Sexual violence and domestic servitude are part and parcel of life for child brides.

We all are accountable for what is happening to these girls, who are sometimes as young as four years old when they are wed. Unless we take action, we are consciously forfeiting our responsibility for many of the most vulnerable people on Earth.

We must end this practice now. And we can.

We can go about this work by empowering local activists who are already making change, promoting transformation on the community level. There are passionate and dedicated people around the world who have been struggling against this practice for years. Our role will be to support and enable their efforts, and to raise consciousness on what they are doing and why.

Some object to our intentions by saying that child marriage is an issue of tradition, culture, or religion, and therefore must continue as it always has. But none of the world's major religions support this practice. And while traditions are vital to nations in many ways, they are not set in stone. "People may say it is tradition, it cannot change," says Mozambican social and political activist Graça Machel of The Elders. "But I know it is not true. Traditions can change because they are made by people."

Together we can take on the important work of transforming traditions to embrace empowerment, equality, opportunity, and kindness, instead of domination, restriction, and exploitation. We can give these girls -- and their societies -- a better future. We can end child marriage in a generation. Please join us.