By Siddharth Chatterjee, UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya
When most girls should be starting middle school, my grandmother was getting married. I never asked her about what it was like to grow up as a child bride in India, to give birth to her first baby at the age of 11. Though it was never explicitly forbidden, her lost childhood remained undiscussed in my family. Instead, it was dismissed as simply how things were done back then.
While we’ve seen progress in some areas of gender equality, child marriage — one of the most egregious human rights violations against women and girls — remains widespread. Even today, India has the highest number of child brides in the world. Worldwide, one in every five girls is married before the age of 18. Disturbingly, in some places, that number is growing. In Yemen, for example, child marriage is on the rise as a result of more than three years of conflict and a looming famine.
But child marriage is not confined to active war zones or developing countries. In an investigation published last Friday, the Associated Press found that the U.S. had approved thousands of requests by men to bring in child and adolescent brides to live in the United States over the past decade. In 2013, for example, the U.S. approved a petition from a 71-year-old man for his 17-year-old wife in Guatemala. Alarmingly, such approvals do not violate U.S. laws. As the AP article notes, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bases its decisions on whether child marriages are legal in the home country and in the state where the petitioner lives.
In Kenya, where I currently serve, nearly one in four girls are forced to marry before their 18th birthday. This practice is especially common among the country’s refugee population. Kenya hosts the world’s oldest and largest refugee camps, where thousands of families escaping conflict in South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have settled. Displaced girls are particularly vulnerable to being married off.
For the UN Country Team in Kenya, our driving force is inspired by UN Secretary General António Guterres’s clarion call to “leave no one behind” and reach the farthest first. This includes child brides, who are among the planet’s most impoverished and marginalized.
Child marriage is often a troubling precursor to a lifetime of violence, denied rights and thwarted potential. Girls who marry young are typically forced to quit school, risk serious health complications from early and multiple pregnancies, and suffer physical and psychological abuse. The range of actions — and inactions — that fall within the scope of gender-based violence include the obvious ones, like domestic abuse and sexual assault, as well as less obvious ones, like the denial of reproductive health services and education.
Gender-based violence doesn’t just harm those directly afflicted; entire families, communities and societies suffer as well. Child marriage is a crisis in health, education and opportunity. When a girl is married off early, her chances for education are often jettisoned, along with hope for decent employment opportunities in the future. Such child brides will likely never participate in the economy in a meaningful way, trapping girls in a cycle of poverty that can persist across generations.
On the other hand, enabling girls to finish their education, plan their families and realize their full potential could generate billions of dollars in newfound wealth and productivity. In its 2016 Africa Human Development Report, UNDP found that gender inequality costs sub-Saharan Africa $95 billion per year on average.
Earlier this year Kenya’s First Lady Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta declared, “We need a world that is safer and more open to equal opportunities for our girls and women. We need to unlock the potential of girls, to raise girls that are bolder, better educated and ready to give their best to our world—in whatever capacity.”
While the roots of gender-based violence and discrimination are complex and often deeply ingrained, solutions exist. They just need greater support. Empowering women and girls is often as basic as providing education and job training, food assistance to ease hunger and help families, even “dignity kits” that include personal hygiene items like menstruation products.
The biggest challenge in addressing child marriage at the community level is two-pronged: Changing long-held cultural norms is not easy and many families resort to child marriage as a way to alleviate poverty, albeit in the short term. For many, giving your daughter away means one less mouth to feed. That’s why studies have shown that school meals not only boost enrollment among girls, it can also help curb child marriage rates.
The good news? We are making progress. Working with the University of Nairobi, the UN found that 98% of maternal deaths in Kenya were happening in only 15 counties. In the past several years, maternal mortality rates have fallen thanks to the First Lady’s Beyond Zero initiative and the government’s push to improve maternal and child health among the most vulnerable, especially child brides. We’re also investing in grassroots advocates who can help us spread awareness about the dangers of practices like child marriage. This means cultivating voices within communities where harmful norms have continued for centuries, including young men who are publicly denouncing these traditions.
There cannot be any illusions about the enormity of the task ahead. Child marriage is just one example of the violence against women and girls that has persisted for millennia. Shifts in attitude must extend beyond social media hashtags to homes around the world.
Now that I’m older and wiser, I feel that I’ve always been a feminist — even before I learned the term. At every stage of my life, I’ve witnessed the dangerous reality of patriarchy. Even as a child, I remember noticing how women and men were treated differently — including in my own household.
I can only imagine how my grandmother’s life might have been if she had been able to learn how to read and write, to play with her friends instead of taking care of babies, to simply be a child. She was denied these basic human rights.
In memory of my grandmother, I’m standing up for the millions of girls who deserve to decide who they will marry and when. I urge leaders everywhere — in Kenya, India, and the U.S. — to change harmful laws around this human rights violation so girls can truly achieve their potential.
Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya.