Drive to end child marriage stalls, but fightback begins

By Gordon Brown, U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education

Editor's note: Gordon Brown is a United Nations Special Envoy on Global Education. He was formerly the UK's prime minister.

It is a descent into barbarism. This month’s plan by Iraqi parliamentarians to legalize girl marriage at nine follows the Pakistan Islamic Council’s demand last month that Pakistan abolish all legal restrictions on child marriage, the revelation that Syrian refugee girls are being sold into marriage against their will and the increased pressure in many African countries to ease the restrictions on selling child brides.

As one who has believed that worldwide disgust at child marriage would end it within our generation, I now find that progress has stalled. In the last few months Mauritania, at the center of allegations of girls’ genital mutilation to make possible the early marriage of eight and nine year olds, has resisted pressure to enforce a legal minimum age for marriage.

Attempts in Yemen to do so have also failed. Even Nigeria has been considering reducing the age of marriage.

In India, the rape of girls has brought millions on to the streets in protest and it has now been exposed as the country with 40% of the world's child brides.

The U.N. says one in nine girls is a bride by the age of 15 and that by 2020 142 million – or one in three girls in developing countries – will be married before they are 18. For example, in Afghanistan 60% are married before they turn 16 and in Niger 74% of girls are married by the age of 18.

Fortunately, the reluctance of governments to end abuses is being met with an even stronger movement from girls themselves.

Their anger is now kicking off a global civil rights struggle to rescue children from exploitation and guarantee them their right to education.

Alongside the Iraqi women’s network, who declared last month's International Women's Day an Iraqi day of mourning, are Nepal’s Common Forum for Kamlari Freedom, the Ugandan Child Protection clubs, the Ghanaian Upper Manya Krobo Rights of the Child Club and Indonesia's Grobogan Child Empowerment Group.

These civil rights movements may not yet be household names but they are borrowing the tactics of the U.S. civil rights movement in defying parents and authorities who try to marry 8, 9 and 10-year-old children off against their will.

Child-marriage-free zones, where girls club together to refuse to be married off, often defying their families' wishes, are springing up in the Indian subcontinent. The first has been formed in Pakistan. In Bangladesh there are now several zones and they are soon to be started in countries like Malawi.

Many of them are linked to the growing global movement, Girls not Brides.

One secure way to prevent child marriage, child labor, child trafficking and discrimination against girls is to ensure we deliver the right of every child to be at school.

On April 10 in Washington, a worldwide emergency coalition for education will be launched. It will show that the answer to ending child marriage is to uphold the right of all children to be free of exploitation and involved in education.

A girl with some education is not only unlikely to be married at 8, 9 or 10 but is also six times less likely to be married by 18.

The coalition will call for four zeroes:
1. zero child marriage
2. zero child labour
3. zero discrimination against girls
4. zero exclusion from education.

It represents the world’s last chance to meet the United Nations' Millennium Development Goal target which after huge initial progress –- getting 40 million children to school –- has stalled.

Now 57 million of the most marginalized children, the boy laborer, the trafficked youngster, the nine-year-old bride and the street kid, do not have anyone to make sure they get into a classroom and are learning.

But the violations of children’s rights can best be ended by ensuring universal education. It is education that unlocks not only the educational potential of a child but progress in health, employment, opportunity and higher standards of living.

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