CHILDHOOD should be a time of play and learning, within a safe environment, so that children can reach their full potential. But the prospects are not the same for boys and girls. Girls are less likely to finish school, get a higher education or enter the workforce. They are less likely to have a voice or control over their lives.
Girls and women have the right to live a life free from violence and discrimination, and reach their full potential. But harmful social norms such as child and forced marriage are preventing this for many. Unicef estimates that, globally, around one in three young women aged 20 to 24 years (70 million approx.) were married before the age of 18. Around 11% (23 million approx.) were married before their 15th birthday.
In London, the British Prime Minister and the Unicef Executive Director will co-host the 'Girl Summit 2014' to mobilise domestic and international efforts to end child and forced marriage within a generation -- everywhere.
Child and forced marriage is a serious violation of girls' and women's rights. Forcing a girl or woman into marriage robs her of the right to choose her own future; prevents her from going to school and puts her at greater risk of dying during early childbirth. With figures at 65%, Bangladesh is among the countries with the highest rates of child marriage =- Niger, 75%; Chad and Central African Republic, 68%; Guinea, 63%; Mali, 55%; Burkina Faso and South Sudan, 52%; and Malawi, 50%.
The impact of child marriage is devastating for society.Child brides usually have a high burden of domestic responsibilities and have little or no say in household and personal decisions. They are at an increased risk of violence and abuse. An early pregnancy poses higher risks as the mother is still a child herself.
Teenage pregnancy undermines a girl's development because it affects her growth and negatively affects her nutritional status. Infants born to adolescent mothers have a higher risk of being stillborn or dying soon after birth. They are also more likely to have a low birth weight, having a long term impact on their health and their physical and cognitive development thus perpetuating intergenerational poverty.
A lack of education, poverty and harmful social norms are among the root causes of child marriage. In insecure situations, families are more likely to marry off their young daughters, thinking that this will keep them safe.
Encouragingly, in Bangladesh, advancing the rights of women and girls is a priority for the government. There has been good progress towards improving girls' and women's lives over last two decades. For example, primary enrolment of girls has been increasing with over 95% now starting primary school with more girls than boys completing primary education. Also, the number of women dying in childbirth between 1990 and 2013 fell by 70, with an opportunity to achieve the MDG target.
Recent evidence shows that child marriage in Bangladesh is declining (DHS, 2011). The proportion of girls marrying before the age of 15 years has decreased from 52% to 17% in the last 30 years. The proportion of girls marrying by the age of 18 years old is also declining, but not fast enough. Projections show that at the current rate of decline, child marriage will only be eliminated in Bangladesh by 2055 -- can we accept that girls here will continue to suffer this harmful practice for another 40 years?
The Government of Bangladesh is planning to accelerate the pace of change. The decision to revise the 'Child Marriage Restraint Act' to increase penalties for child marriage is appreciated, as is the work of the Ministry of Women & Children's Affairs to develop a national plan of action to eliminate child marriage in consultation with development partners and civil society organisations.
We hope that the Honourable Prime Minister's attendance at the Girl Summit in London will lead to an ambitious and enforceable action plan, to eliminate child marriage within a generation. We also hope that the Government of Bangladesh will sign up to the Summit Charter where signatories will commit to work together to end child, early and forced marriage everywhere, forever.
The Girl Summit is committed to a common future free from child and forced marriage. More and more people are saying “No” to these harmful practices. Many governments in developing countries are already working to end these practices and have passed laws and developed plans. Our role is to support and accelerate efforts to end them.
At the Summit, the UK Prime Minister and Unicef Executive Director will be joined by ministers from the UK and around the world, heads of development agencies, experts, survivors, charities and community groups. The Summit will aim to secure new commitments from the private sector, faith leaders, civil society organisations and governments -- an agreed agenda for change.
Girls themselves must be at the centre of action to end child marriage. It is their rights, bodies and lives that are at stake. But we know that girls alone are not responsible for creating change. We are all responsible for doing our bit to alter the social expectations of girls and to value their role in society. Duty bearers must be called upon to fulfil the aspirations of all girls. Men and boys also have an important role to play in creating a world where all children will live free of harmful social norms.
The authors of this joint op-ed are DFID-Bangladesh Country Representative and Unicef Bangladesh Representative, respectively.