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In many places around the world, child marriage is not only accepted, it is expected. In these cultures, it is routine for a young girl to be married off to a much older man against her will. Such an arrangement often results in lack of education, early childbirth, domestic violence, ill health, poverty, and a lifetime of dependence.

Why does the practice persist? A young bride is considered more likely to be virginal. Young girls are viewed as an additional worker for the family, as a means to expand the family, and to provide the social benefits of marriage. The families of the girl brides also gain social status, plus the economic benefit of having one less mouth to feed. A marriage may be arranged as a form of debt repayment or other type of business transaction.

UNICEF reports that 60 million children are forced into marriage, 50 percent of whom are in South Asia. In Rajasthan, India, 15 percent of girls are married before their 10th birthday.

Even in countries where child marriage is against the law, the practice manages to thrive. Children face harsh punishment if they dare to disobey their elders. The threat of child marriage is enough to prompt some girls to run away and take their chances on their own. Others see no escape other than suicide.

A growing number of brave girls are bucking the system and trying to change things for themselves and for others.

  • In 2008, 10-year-old Nujood Ali walked into a court in Yemen to ask for a divorce from a man three times her age. She told of abuse at the hands of her husband and his family. Her experiences helped spur Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries to become more vigilant about enforcing child marriage laws. Following her lead, other child brides have also managed to have divorces granted.
  • In Bangladesh, 13-year-old Rehana Begum was about to be married off, but called on the “wedding busters,” a group of children working to end the practice of child marriage. The group appealed to Rehana’s mother, helped her understand the consequences to her daughter, and was successful in putting a halt to the marriage plans. Because of the wedding busters, local governments are beginning to create “child-marriage-free zones.” Enforcement remains a problem, but the grass-roots organization is making a difference. In the Nilphamari area, some marriage registrars have begun demanding proof of age for marriage.
  • In the United States, the Girl Up campaign has organized 150,000 teens in support of girls around the world in an effort to highlight the problem of child marriage.
  • The first International Day of the Girl took place in October 2012, with a top priority of eliminating child marriages around the world.

Each girl who finds the strength to fight child marriage becomes a role model to others. With each new story of bravery and success, another girl is helped, but it is not a battle that should be left entirely to the girls.

Local and national governments must acknowledge child marriage as the serious, life-threatening issue that it is. We must stop allowing “culture” or “religion” to sway our common sense. Forced child marriage is a tragedy of monumental proportions.

People everywhere must stand up in defense of the children.

This blog post was contributed by guest blogger Jason Tucker of Organic Development.  GJI welcomes guest blogs on topics salient to our work and mission.