Why I am Committed to Ending Child Marriage
Sarah Degnan Kambou, PhD, was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.
by Sarah Degnan Kambou, PhD, president of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)
Iredjourèma was born in 1935 to a traditional healer in Burkina Faso. She was the third of ten children, and lost her mother when she was 12.
As a young girl, Iredjourèma was regarded as a talented, graceful dancer. She was smart, too. But she never had the opportunity to attend school because she was needed to tend the family’s sheep. At 16, Iredjourèma’s family arranged for her to marry a man eight years her senior. She carried nine pregnancies to term, and nearly died giving birth to her youngest child.
Today, there are more than 50 million child brides like Iredjourèma worldwide, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Child marriage — the practice of marrying girls younger than 18, often to much older men — is a violation of girls’ human rights. It also compromises their education, health, well-being, and productivity.
When young girls become wives, any hope they had of going to school, earning an income, or developing a network of friends their age is greatly reduced. They are expected to care for a husband and have children, even though they are not physically or emotionally ready.
This can prove deadly: pregnancy-related complications are a leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide. And since girls often are wedded to older, more experienced men, young wives are at greater risk for sexually transmitted infection. Data also show that they experience high rates of domestic violence.
Despite such consequences, the practice of child marriage continues – most often in communities where girls’ opportunities and choices are limited by poverty and gender inequality. Trends indicate that 100 million more girls – 25,000 girls every day – will become child brides in the next decade. They are like Iredjourèma, who today is the first of four wives in a low-income household in northern Ivory Coast.
Although she was poor and uneducated, Iredjourèma brewed beer and sold vegetables to pay school fees so that her nine children could complete their education. She was determined that they would have a better life than what she could provide, and she knew they had to excel at school to qualify for college scholarships. Despite scarce resources, Iredjourèma ensured that each of her children developed skills that would make them productive members of society.
Today, she is particularly proud of her son, who is a senior economist at the World Bank, and her daughter, who is the lead judge at the Labor Court in the capital Ouagadougou. Can you imagine the contributions such an enterprising and determined woman could have made in her community had she been offered an education rather than marriage at such an early age?
In her small corner of the world, where she keeps hearth and home together and pushes all of her grandchildren to do well in school, Iredjourèma is a ChangemakeHER. And I am proud to say that Iredjourèma Kambou is also my mother-in-law.
As you can see from her story, social norms are not immutable. And while pervasive, child marriage is not inevitable.
Programs in Africa and South Asia have successfully used community-based approaches to change knowledge, attitudes, and behavior that are related to early marriage. For instance, in rural Maharashtra, India, a program implemented by the Institute for Health Management-Pachod (IHMP) and evaluated by ICRW tested the effectiveness of a life skills program for adolescent girls.
Girls learned basic skills like how to open a bank account, prepare nutritious meals, and make good decisions. This simple intervention – coupled with outreach to parents and local authorities – increased the average age of marriage in the community from 16 to 17 years old. Girls reported that they felt more confident to speak up about their aspirations and desire to hold off on marriage.
Those who attended the course were four times less likely to marry before 18 than girls who did not attend the course. This is a significant achievement, and shows that with the help of a culturally-acceptable intervention, social norms can change in a short period of time.
I believe that ending child marriage requires investing in girls through education, vocational training, and development of life skills. Governments should protect girls’ rights by enacting and enforcing legislation that shields them from early marriage and allows them to mature physically and emotionally, pursue an education, build confidence, and define their life’s goals.
By eliminating child marriage, we can help dismantle the discrimination and disadvantages so many girls around the globe experience daily. We can instead help ensure that every girl has the opportunity to enjoy her childhood, explore her dreams, and become a productive member of society.
Research evidence shows me this is possible. And my mother-in-law’s experience shows me the ingenuity and determination inherent in countless young women worldwide who live in difficult conditions. When we tap into that potential and allow girls to be all they can be, everyone benefits – families, communities, nations. This is why I am committed to ending the practice of child marriage.
Sarah Degnan Kambou is president of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) in Washington, D.C. ICRW works to make women in developing countries an integral part of alleviating global poverty. Our research evidence identifies women’s contributions as well as the obstacles that prevent them from being economically strong and able to fully participate in society. ICRW translates these insights into a path of action that honors women’s human rights, ensures gender equality and creates the conditions in which all women can thrive.