Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is authored by Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.
In late 2013, a young girl named Haneen fled Syria with her parents and ten siblings to escape escalating violence and instability. Her father sustained serious injuries that left him paralyzed along their journey to the Turkish border. Fearing he could no longer provide for and protect his children, he decided to marry off Haneen to a middle-aged Turkish man whose name he didn’t even know.
The family received a small sum of money in exchange for Haneen’s marriage, and decided they might fare better in Lebanon. They soon departed Turkey, leaving Haneen behind with her new husband. Three months later, Haneen reported that she had tried to commit suicide twice and that her husband regularly beat and mistreated her. Barely fourteen, she learned she was pregnant.
Haneen and her family would eventually reunite, but her story has become a far too common reality for girls worldwide. Socioeconomic factors and desperation sometimes compel families to marry their daughters off too young, often under the false pretense that their child’s new spouse will provide them a secure and autonomous life.
As a father, I understand any parent’s desire to see their children safe and secure. But choosing when and whom to marry is one of life’s most important decisions, and child marriage denies millions of girls this choice each year—with devastating impacts on the girl, her family, and her community.
More than 700 million girls and women alive today were married as children. This is a massive human rights violation and a major obstacle to sustainable development.
Girls forced into early marriage are more likely to become pregnant prematurely, increasing the risks of maternal and newborn death. They are much more likely to drop out of school, and their own children tend to be less healthy and less educated. This takes a cumulative toll on communities, workforces, and economies, and the loss is carried over from generation to generation. This issue affects us all and must no longer be ignored.
Last month, UNFPA and UNICEF launched the Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, which, through collaboration between a wide variety of governmental, non-governmental, and UN partners—as well as girls themselves—will bring us closer to ending this practice.
The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme offers a framework for promoting the right of girls to delay marriage, addressing the conditions that keep the practice in place, and caring for girls already in such marriages. It is the flagship program for achieving target 5.3 of the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aims to end child marriage around the world by 2030.
The Global Programme will focus on enabling girls at risk of child marriage to choose and shape their own futures. It will support households in developing and demonstrating positive attitudes towards adolescent girls, and strengthen the systems that deliver services to adolescent girls. It will also seek to ensure that laws and policies protect and promote adolescent girls’ rights, and highlight the importance of using robust data to inform policies relating to adolescent girls.
The Programme will begin in twelve countries: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Yemen, and Zambia. These countries were selected for additional United Nations investment and accelerated efforts due to their high prevalence rates and large projected burden of child marriage, levels of government engagement, and regional distribution.
The global momentum and opportunities to make significant progress on ending child marriage have never been greater. I look forward to working with my colleagues across the UN, governments, and other key partners—including entrepreneurs, the private sector, civil society, and, most importantly, young people. Together, we can end child marriage once and for all. It’s long past time to do so.