On International Day of the Girl, It's Time to Remember That Girls Should Be Students, Not Brides

11/10/2013 09:20 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

Kidan from Ethiopia was eagerly awaiting the day when she would be able to complete her education and fulfil her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. But she was instead promised in marriage in exchange for cattle.

For a family with limited resources like Kidan's, schooling may not be seen as a viable alternative to marriage for their daughters. And because girls like Kidan are mainly valued for their ability to become wives and mothers, rather than their potential to earn an income or play an active role in their community, any money available for school fees, books or uniforms will most likely go to support their brothers' education.

Girls are often expected to marry - not study. Once married, it is extremely difficult for girls to stay in school, as domestic responsibilities and childrearing take over. Tigist, also from Ethiopia, and married at the age of 15 has lost hope of ever returning to her studies: "I have a home and a child, so I can't go back to school."

Leaving school at a crucial age deprives child brides of so many opportunities to succeed in life, and curtails their prospects for employment and financial autonomy as they get older.

Efforts to improve education for girls must go hand-in-hand with efforts to end child marriage

It is hard to envision a bright future for young people as long as girls are married off before they have had the chance to finish school.

Every year, approximately 14 million girls marry before their 18th birthday. The majority of those girls drop out of school and miss out on the educational and economic opportunities they need to build prosperous lives for themselves, their families and their communities. If we do not take into account the impact of child marriage, efforts to improve education for girls will likely miss some of the most vulnerable individuals in society.

At the same time, we have to recognise that education can be an incredibly powerful tool in reducing child marriage - girls who complete secondary education are six times more likely to remain unmarried until they are adults than girls who are forced to leave school early.

Offering a safe, girl-friendly learning environment is a key part of the effort to both improve girls' education and to reduce child marriage. The organisation Educate Girls runs programmes in Rajasthan, India, to improve school infrastructure and address concerns about girls' for safety in mixed spaces. For example, the programme equipped schools with sex-segregated bathrooms to address the threat of sexual violence in shared bathrooms. Parents no longer felt the need to pull girls out of school, and attendance rates increased.

Unfortunately, many girls are not encouraged to finish their education because they are simply not valued in the same way as boys. That is why some organisations are working to raise the visibility of socially valued roles for women beyond those of wife and mother. The Girls Empowerment Network in Malawi, for instance, develops girls' leadership programmes with the aim of giving young girls positive role models that inspire them to pursue higher education, employment and economic independence.

On Day of the Girl, global movement calls for joint action on child marriage

These are only two examples of the types of projects implemented by members of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 300 non-governmental organisations committed to ending child marriage. Based in more than 50 countries, many of our members focus on the specific issues that keep girls out of school.

But we cannot do this alone. On International Day of the Girl Child, Girls Not Brides members will call on governments, donors and international institutions to work together to address some of the factors that push parents to continue to choose marriage over education for their daughters, including the safety, quality and accessibility of schools. This might include, for example, providing transport to enable girls to get to school safely or putting to an end rules that prohibit married girls from staying in school. After all, why should they suffer for a decision in which they had no say?

Education can also help address a more fundamental problem that keeps girls out of school and pushes them into early marriage: their low status. Quality sexuality education for girls and boys that explicitly addresses gender inequality is critical for girls to understand their bodies and rights, and helps both girls and boys understand that they are equal and that violence is never acceptable.

On International Day of the Girl 2013, we should remind ourselves that a lack of education and child marriage cut off opportunities for girls. It is also an opportunity to recognise that, if we work together to ensure that girls are able to complete their education and can decide when and whom they marry, we will start seeing a more just and prosperous world.

Watch Girls Not Brides' new animation about child marriage and its impact on girls:

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