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The Economic Pitfall of Child Marriage

08/09/2014 15:25 BST | Updated 04/11/2014 10:59 GMT

What if I were to tell you that you had a 33 per cent chance of having your human rights severely violated before the age of 19? And then I added that this one violation would affect the rest of your life - your health, education, and self determination? Would you be scared? Angry? Maybe you'd get vocal, assert yourself, and build support and protection from family, friends, and community members?

Sadly, this scenario is not hypothetical: adolescent girls, particularly those from very poor families, face these odds every day and don't have the power or privilege to defend themselves. Their rights are constantly under threat, and one of the greatest challenges they face is early and forced child marriage. One in three adolescent girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18; one in nine girls is married by age 15.

At first glance, early and forced marriage may not seem like a pressing issue in comparison to many of the other abuses adolescent girls face - such as honor killings, starvation and rape. If you start to think about the issue more critically, however, you realize the severity of the ramifications. Compared to girls who marry later in life, child brides are more likely to die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, be denied an education, and suffer from domestic violence. Every year 14 million girls are forced to marry against their will to someone they have not chosen.

Undoubtedly, this is a moral issue, but it is also an important economic issue affecting livelihoods and the ability of women to contribute to their communities and economies. By being married early, girls are more likely to be trapped by poverty which limits not only their potential to support adequately their families but also constrains economic growth in their communities and countries. Consider that the purchasing power of women in the US ranges from USD5-USD15 trillion annually and that women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the US in the next decade. Companies face a massive opportunity cost if women in developing economies cannot realise their potential as wage-earners, entrepreneurs and consumers.

Child brides are also likely to drop out of school, for many reasons including customs, culture, assumption of household responsibilities, husbands and families that don't support education, or laws dictating education is only for unmarried or childless girls. Without access to education, young women do not gain the skills and knowledge necessary to be competitive candidates for employment. This means businesses have fewer options in their talent pipeline and miss out on the unique perspective and contributions that women bring to the workplace.

And the gains are not limited to working for someone else. The skills gap and lack of self determination among child brides also affect entrepreneurship. With the right training and incentives, women are more likely to start an enterprise than men and will create over half the 9.72 million small business jobs expected to be generated globally by 2018. Fewer skilled and empowered women translate into fewer small businesses and jobs in the communities; the ramifications of this reverberate throughout an entire economy.

The lesson here is that child marriage does not "only" affect fourteen million girls a year; the consequences are far reaching. Early and forced child marriage not only violates the universal declaration of human rights, but it also prevents us from having an inclusive and prosperous global economy. Something that even the most conservative economist or demanding shareholder can agree is bad news, indeed.

This editorial was written for the Global Business Coalition for Education's #educationcountdown campaign. Standard Chartered Bank is a proud member and supporter.