On a recent trip to Liberia in West Africa I was shocked to learn that more than 30% of girls aged 15-19 are either married or pregnant, half of these married before their 15th birthday.
I visited a UNICEF-supported project in Monrovia's West Point slum where we were working with 10-14 year-olds to help them develop the life skills and confidence to resist early marriage and pregnancy. 14-year-old Jessica told me she had already been offered in marriage to an older man - she said "no thanks, I'm too young and want education and a career before I marry".
Instead, she and her friends are using drama to raise awareness in their community of the many dangers girls are facing. These girls in Liberia will I'm sure be celebrating today's first ever 'International Day of the Girl Child'. This is not just another once-a-year media opportunity - for Jessica, drawing attention to the needs and potential of girls is what she does every day - and it is making a difference.
Today is about supporting girls to ensure they can grow up protected, safe, educated and healthy. As the world unites to celebrate the day the world's leading children's organisation, UNICEF joins forces with governments, civil society and UN Agencies to lay the groundwork to put an end to a fundamental human rights violation that impacts all aspects of a girl's life - child marriage.
Despite the rate of girls marrying before their 18th birthday being on a slow decline globally, the need for a focussed and steadfast approach in accelerating and ultimately ending the practice of child marriage is paramount, because of the real and harmful consequences it can have on a girl's life and future. For some girls, being forced into marriage is a hard concept to imagine, maybe even hard to believe, but for the girl removed from family life at the age of 12 to marry a man three times her age the outlook is more than bleak. Separation from family and friends, lack of freedom and a decreased opportunity for education are just a small number of the risks involved for girls when marrying in childhood.
Niger is reported to have the highest rate of child marriages in the world, where a staggering three-quarters (75%) of the country's children are married before the age of 18, and over one in three children (36%) are married before their 15th birthday. Although this practice does affect boys, it affects girls in much larger numbers.
In 1994, the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women issued a nonbinding recommendation that countries adopt a minimum age for marriage of 18 years for both sexes. Yet the marriage laws of developing countries vary dramatically. As of 2012, 103 countries have, at least on paper, established 18 years or older as the legal minimum age for girls to marry without consent. For boys, 126 countries have established 18 years or older as the legal minimum age to marry without consent. Despite these recommendations however, child marriage occurs in practically every region of the world but at significantly higher rates in South Asia (46%), sub-Saharan Africa (37%), and Latin America and Caribbean (29%), proving more must be done.
Globally, more than one in three young women aged 20-24 years were first married before they reached age 18. One third of them entered into marriage before they turned 15. Considering that child brides are at greater risk of experiencing violence, abuse and exploitation, with India having the highest rate of domestic violence towards girl wives (67% are affected); these statistics are even more of a sign that an urgent, global approach needs to be taken to stop this prolific violation of the rights of young girls, all too common in many communities across the world.
In addition to physical violence, due to the difference in age and maturity with their typically adult partners, child brides are less able to negotiate sexual relationships than older women. In addition, they may not be able to effectively negotiate contraceptive use, putting them at risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections, and early and unwanted pregnancies, posing life-threatening consequences. Shockingly, girls between 10 and 14 years of age are five times more likely than women aged 20 to 24 die in pregnancy and childbirth.
In spite of child marriage often ending a girl's education, research shows that higher levels of education for girls actually prevent child marriage and therefore must be a crucial part of our response to this terrible issue. When girls are able to stay in school, they develop not just in an educational sense but a social sense, allowing them to grow in confidence and giving them the communicative ability to make informed decisions about their futures.
What's more, educated girls can go onto employment, removing the parent's perception that they must force their child into marriage for financial reasons. UNICEF, the only organisation specifically named in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, has already proven success in challenging perceptions of the practice of child marriage and is currently addressing it at a global level through promotion of girls' education, working to ensure that by 2015 all children everywhere will be able to complete primary schooling and, crucially, that girls can reach adulthood unwed.
As the world unites to celebrate the 'International Day of the Girl Child', please join UNICEF in this mission. Let's work together to ensure that girls can celebrate an equal future.