The United Nations is warning the rate of girls under the age of 18 who are married off by their parents will rise dramatically if current trends are not reversed. Little progress in ending child marriage has been made during the past decade.
Salamatou Aghali Issoufa was a 16-year old student in the African country of Niger when her parents told her they were marrying her off to a 50-year old man who already had a wife and children. Issoufa says she did not want that, she wanted to stay in school and finish her diploma.
“So I went to see my eldest brother who was more educated than I was," she said. "So I spoke to him, I asked him, if you could help me. I said I do not agree, can I study? I would like to continue [studying]. Then this elder brother went to see my parents. He won them over as en elder. He spoke to them, to the point that they were convinced."
Issoufa was not forced to marry and was able to continue her studies - an uncommon case in her country, which has the highest prevalence of child marriages in Africa.
Her story is also rare on a global scale, according to the new U.N. report "Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage." The study found that in 2010, one-in-three young women aged 20 to 24 had been married off before the age of 18 - more than 67 million girls.
Although child marriages happen virtually everywhere, U.N. Population Fund head Babatunde Osotimehin says it happens most often in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, exposing millions of girls to grave consequences.
“It [child marriage] jeopardizes their right to education, including comprehensive sexuality education, health, survival and the development to their fullest. It excludes a girl from decisions, such as the timing of marriage and the choice of a spouse, and also timing of children and the spacing between those children,” said Osotimehin.
Osotimehin notes that girls who are poor, have little or no education, and live in rural areas are most likely to marry too young. The study also found that girls with no education are more than three times more likely to marry before 18 than those with secondary or higher educations.
The U.N. Population Fund head says these girls are exposed to life threatening health consequences, such as complications from pregnancy and childbirth, lack of access to contraception, and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, from their often older husbands.
During a news conference on Thursday to launch the report, South Africa’s activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu urged an end to child marriage.
“It is viciously cruel! These children who have to sleep with old men do not even know what they are going to be doing in bed. It is vicious! And please be committed and say this is something we want to end; it is a cruelty,” he said.
Despite efforts to end the practice, the United Nations warns that if current trends continue, the number of young girls married off before the age of 18 will more than double - to 142 million - during the coming decade.
The study's authors urge governments on national and local levels to raise the marriage age to 18 and enforce it. They also say education is key to ending the practice.
As for Salamatou Aghali Issoufa of Niger, she was able to continue her education and become a midwife. Not only does she help other women, but she also earns an income. She met a man she chose to be married to and is now the mother of a young daughter with another child on the way - two children who will be part of a new generation to be taught the importance of marrying as adults.