Currently, one third of girls in the developing world will be married before the age of 18, and one in seven before the age of 15. These forced marriages can even see girls as young as eight married to middle-aged men, leaving them subject to a host of problems that, if avoided, could make drastic improvements to the country. Forced marriage happens as a result of gender inequality, girls being viewed as an economic burden, negative religious practices that cause families to push girls into early marriage to safeguard against ‘immoral’ behaviour, failure to enforce laws and conflicts.
Girls that are married as children have a pregnancy rate double that of women in their twenties, contributing to the rapid increases in population that bring devastating effects to the country such as lack of land and food. However, that’s not all. Girls aged between 10 and 14 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women aged from 20 to 24. If they manage to live through childbirth, a huge proportion of them will face poverty, mistreatment, disease, and may even have to sell their bodies to support their family, putting them at a higher risk of acquiring HIV.
In marriage, these adolescent girls will face other serious issues in regards to their safety. At this young age, they are more likely to be subject to abuse from their partner, both mentally and physically. Female genital mutilation may also be a horrific consequence they have to face. Around 100-140 million African women have undergone FGM worldwide, and it’s estimated that three million girls are subject to it every year in Africa alone. Older women with no medical training are traditionally the ones to perform the procedure. Pieces of glass and scissors can be some of the most basic, but most common tools used and normally there will be no anesthetics and antiseptic treatment. We need to be aware, however, that these issues are happening in our country too. It’s estimated that around 6,500 girls are at risk of FGM within the UK every year.
Nevertheless, there are still ways we can overcome these problems. One of the most powerful means of doing this is by keeping these girls in education for longer. It’s been proved that a girl in the developing world that receives seven years of education, will most likely marry four years later and have 2.2 fewer children, than without that education. Girls who continue in school are less likely to be subjected to forced sex and more likely to use contraception than girls out of school. This contraception would also reduce their chance of getting HIV and AIDS, lowering the current statistics that see five million people worldwide between the ages of 15 and 24 living with HIV, and more than 60% of these being girls. Yet, currently only one in five girls make it to secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa and secondary school completion is below 5%. It seems that the tradition of keeping girls shut away in their homes, caring for the family and doing the housework, means that most will not have a decent education.
This desperately needed education could yield serious benefits for the economy of the country. It’s thought that an increase in 1.2% of the GDP, just in a single year, could be achieved by giving girls their education and closing the joblessness gap between men and women. Not only that, but an additional year of primary school education would raise the girl’s eventual wages by 10-20% and an extra year of secondary school adds 15-25%. Yields on women’s land can be increased by up to 30%, simply by letting them have access to the non-land resources and facilities that men get. This could even lower the number of starving people in the world by 100-150 million as a result of their agricultural output being raised by up to 4%. Keeping girls in education has the potential to make a huge difference, not only by allowing the females themselves to earn a living, marry when they’re ready and lead a healthy life, but for the rest of the country too.
As a result of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations’ work, in the Kanem region of Chad, land-loan agreements lasting five years were signed, enabling women’s groups to work on the fertile and irrigable land that they previously didn’t have access to, and farm it in their own names. This access to land has allowed the families of the women to have a more balanced, nutritious and varied meals, and a greater and steadier source of income. In addition, child malnutrition has dropped to 12.6% in these households, compared to 31.1% seen in non-involved households.
Awra Amba, a small community in Ethiopia, is another example of change being made. Set up around 40 years ago by a man named Zumra Nuru, Awra Amba is a small village where gender equality is present, casting aside the beliefs of the rest of the country. In Awra Amba, a woman may ask a man to marry her and having too many children is seen as harmful. Work is not differentiated between men and women: Women plough the fields and handle money, while men are not ashamed to sew clothes, cook food and carry water.
Therefore, even though the current situation for many girls is shocking, there are ways to change it.
Alicia Cook is a volunteer at the Welsh Centre for International Affairs.
1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 – Girl Effect (accessed July 8, 2014)
2. Plan UK (accessed July 8, 2014)
5. Forward UK (accessed July 8, 2014)
10. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (accessed July 8, 2014)
11. Visit Awra Amba (accessed July 8, 2014)