Every fall as the trees shed their colorful leaves I get a little nostalgic. When I see the children in my neighborhood setting pumpkins on their doorsteps and frolicking in leaves, I feel a pang of jealousy. With all the stresses of ‘adult life’ and grad school, I miss the carefree days of my childhood. Then I think about how lucky I was to have that experience, when so many children across the globe have their childhood cut short because of poverty, cultural expectations, and shockingly, as they are forced into marriage.

Think of a young girl in your life.  Think of your sibling, niece, cousin, neighbor, daughter or even a memory of yourself as a child. Now think of 60 million girls just like her married across the globe. Imagine them pressured by families and communities to enter into adulthood at the age of 16, 12 or even 7. Imagine them being forced to marry, often a much older man, and assume the role of a wife and mother.

The emotional, social, and health consequences of this are enormous. These girls are often forced to move far away from their families to be with their husbands. Once they are married they can no longer pursue their education. Since they are so young, they have no say within the family. They are expected to immediately fulfill their roles as wives by becoming sexually active. Most have no sexual and reproductive health education, and no idea of how to protect themselves from STIs or unwanted pregnancies. Furthermore, the girls face pressure to prove their fertility as soon as they are married.

Sexual activity and pregnancy at a young age both bear dangerous health consequences. A young, undeveloped body is often not ready for the physical strain of pregnancy and childbirth. In many of the countries in which child marriage is prevalent, pregnancy is the leading cause of death in adolescent girls. Without the skills to negotiate condom use or knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases, these girls are more likely to be exposed to HIV or other STIs by their older husbands, who have had more sexual experiences and may even have other wives or partners.  Girls also face higher risks of gender based violence.

And those are just the physical consequences. Imagine the psychological consequences of being forced into an adult situation and into sexual activity at such a young age. Imagine the toll of losing your family and all autonomy at such a tender age.

This short video, The Bride Price: Consequences of Child Marriage, provides a great overview of the consequences of child marriage. It includes some heart-breaking photos of child brides in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and India.

These marriages persist despite local and international laws that prohibit them. The prevalence of child marriage varies by region, and is more common in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. In Ethiopia’s Amhara region, half of the girls are married by age 14. If current trends of child marriage persist, we can expect over 100 million girls will marry while still children in the next decade. That is 100 million individuals who could be contributing to the growth of communities and economies. The best way to change this figure is by changing community views of childhood marriage. Incentivizing the education of girls is an effective way to delay age of marriage.

We can play our part here in the US to protect girls across the world from early marriage. In September, the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (H.R. 2103, S. 987) was passed from the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to the full Senate by a unanimous vote. You can contribute to the significant momentum of this bill by contacting your legislators and asking for their support.

This commonsense legislation seeks to eliminate child marriage by:

  • Investing in community level empowerment of girls
  • Educating communities on the harmful impact of child marriage
  • Requiring US to develop a strategy to prevent child marriage

For more information on the bill and how you can make an impact you can visit the International Women’s Health Coalition.

This year as young girls in the US visit pumpkin patches, go on hay rides and trick-or-treat, girls less fortunate will be torn from their families and forced into marriages. Your voice can make a difference. Please take a moment to contact your Senator and Representatives.

Additional links:

International Women’s Health Coalition Child Marriage Factsheet

Learn about the latest important developments regarding the “International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act” and what you can do to support the legislation and this important issue.

Check out this video from PBS NOW-“Child Brides, Stolen Lives.”