The higher health risks surrounding pregnancy for young girls have been widely documented, with girls under 15 shown to be five times more likely to die in childbirth than women who have children in their twenties. However, girls married young also face risks to their mental health and wellbeing. Research suggests that those who are married before the age of 18 are twice as likely to be physically abused or threatened by their spouses than those married at a later age.
Many agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) support initiatives which challenge cultural attitudes towards gender inequality with the aim of preventing domestic violence against women and children. Activities include setting up support networks within communities and using media such as theatre, radio and newspapers to promote women’s rights.
Many NGOs also carry out activities in schools to educate girls about their rights and the health implications of child marriage. Such programmes add to the understanding of school-age girls, who display higher levels of confidence and knowledge when they remain in education. Indeed, as has long been understood, education remains a key tool in the battle against underage marriage. In Mozambique, for example, around 60% of girls with no education are married by the age of 18; this compares with just 10% of those who have completed secondary school, according to the International Centre of Research on Women (ICRW). One of the five main strategies for battling child marriage recommended by the IRWC is therefore the enhancement of girls’ access to secondary or higher education.
The transformative effect of girls’ education
The vitally important nature of girls’ education is visible worldwide; when girls complete their education, they are less likely to marry and have children when they are only children themselves. This benefits not only the health and wellbeing of the girls themselves, but also any children they eventually have, since their offspring are more likely to be healthy and survive into adulthood. The beneficial ripple effect across a society as a whole is huge.
Speaking to the news agency IRIN, a representative for the UN’s child agency, UNICEF, summarises the “transformative” power of girls’ education: “It is the one consistent positive determinant of practically every desired development outcome, from reductions in mortality to poverty reduction and equitable growth, to enhanced participation and democratisation.”