Shifting Norms Around Child Marriage


By Arielle Thomas

I recently got the chance to attend an event at the United Nations called “Time to Uphold Women's and Girls' Human Rights in the Post-2015 Development Agenda: A Call from the Global South.” I expected this meeting to be similar to others I have attended – meetings that mainly address the need to “start a dialogue.” But this meeting was different; speakers offered shocking statistics and country focus pieces on topics such as sexual violence, rape, and child marriage.

The event started off with a startling fact: 14 million girls are married every year before the age of 18. Interestingly, 15 out of the 20 countries with a high prevalence of child marriage are found in Africa. Bob Mwiinga Munyati of AIDS Accountability International linked education and poverty to child marriage. He stated, “Child marriage reinforces the cycle of poverty, not only for the girl but for the entire community.” In Malawi, 1 in 2 girls are married before the age of 18. Munyati mentioned the promising movements which began in May 2014 within Ethiopia and Zambia to end child marriage, and reiterated the need to end the practice by stating that by pressuring young girls to marry, they are “placed in a space of inequality.”

The speaker who stood out to me most was Sai Jyothirmai Racherla of ARROW. She noted that the most common discriminatory practices are early and forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and honor killings. Racherla stated that birth rates are now up to 66.9% in South Asia, and that 15-19 year old girls were twice as likely than older women to die of pregnancy and childbirth complications.  In Afghanistan, over 38% of women and 60-80% of girls married before the age of 18 were forced into the marriage. 

In Tamil Nadu, India, VGIF recently funded the Snekithi Charitable Trust's Campaign against Child Betrothal Teen Marriages, Motherhood & Widowhood. The project is training 50 women and girls to be human rights volunteers, and 400 women and girls are being trained about the importance of staying in school so as to end childhood betrothals and to begin to shift caste norms. These 450 women and girls will then educate others about their rights. The project aims to serve 450 women and girls directly and indirectly affect an additional 1,000 women by the end of the project period. Projects like this one, which are affecting change at the local level through community led initiatives that teach about the importance of staying in school, have real potential to bring about sustainable, systemic change. 

Over the past few decades, we have seen great strides in women’s rights within the United States. There now is no doubt about the need for a girl to be educated and this has become a norm. But in America, if we consider limiting the education of any girl to be unfair, then what about the 14 million girls around the world?