Every 60 seconds, an average of 27 girls under the age of 18 are married. That means that during this year’s 16 Days of Activism on gender-based violence, more than 622,000 girls are likely to be married.
Most of these marriages take place in developing countries, and the reasons vary by country and culture. In places where there’s a high level of violence or instability, families may marry their daughters in an attempt to protect them. In other cases, girls are seen as economic burdens, making the decision for families a financial one.
But it’s not just a matter of supply — there’s also great demand for these kinds of marriages. An organization working in Brazil, which ranks fourth among countries with the most child brides, found that some men preferred younger girls because the girls are perceived as more attractive and easier to control than adult women.
There are many disturbing drivers of early and forced marriage, but its effects are consistent. Marriage makes it almost impossible for millions of girls to stay in school and graduate, ready and able to contribute to the economy.
Instead, girls are likely to become pregnant and give birth before their young bodies are ready, putting them and their children at risk while also perpetuating cycles of poverty, low education, and poor health. That means health care systems, labor forces, and community stability and development pay a price as well.
So what can we do? Laws against early and forced marriage are critically important. But poverty, security, and deeply held beliefs about the value of girls aren’t likely to change through legislation alone, which can have the unintended consequence of driving the practice underground.
The best interventions focus on local communities. They offer families economic alternatives. They empower girls with information, skills, and support networks to help grow their aspirations and goals. They teach young men how to respect and value women and girls.
A study in Ethiopia found that girls between the ages of 12 to 14 were 94 percent less likely to be married and three times more likely to be in school when they were offered educational support. The program found that community conversation about girls’ education and the harmful effects of early and forced marriage was also highly effective in delaying marriage for girls in that age group.
These best practices have helped inform a new effort by the State Department to tackle early and forced marriage in the Middle East. As refugees continue to flood out of Syria and the region’s instability continues to grow, families are struggling to protect their daughters. That’s why the United States will invest $1 million to keep adolescent girls in school through education, legal support, and community-based dialogues.
The State Department is also set to release a strategy to empower adolescent girls early next year.
Investing in this next generation is not only critical to advancing gender equality but also to peace and prosperity.
The young women of today have the tools and potential to be leaders, teachers, doctors, and entrepreneurs who can better shape their countries’ futures. Our job is to make sure the world values them enough to give them time to do it.
Editor’s Note: Catherine Russell serves as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.
This blog originally appeared on Medium.com. December 10th is International Human Rights Day, which concludes the 16-Days of Activism Campaign to End Gender-Based Violence. Addressing gender-based violence is essential to creating a strong foundation where human rights, peace, democracy, and even strong economies can take root.Learn more about the campaign and how you can continue to advocate for an end to gender-based violence beyond the 16-Days of Activism.