On the International Day of the Girl, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson made a plea for the end of child marriage after a visit to Malawi. Worldwide, 15 million young girls are married before the age of 18 each year.
While visiting the landlocked southeastern African country, where a law raised the legal marrying age for girls to 18, Ms. Watson spoke with young women, many of whom stand to benefit from changing legal and social norms.
In many parts of the world where child marriage is still a legal practice, she said, young women are prevented from receiving a full education.
“Meeting with young girls, who like many in their country, are struggling with poverty and were pressured into early marriage, depriving them of their education in the process, made me realize just how important it is for women to be able to make their own choices,” said Ms. Watson.
Currently, however, child marriage is widespread. A new report by Save the Children finds that a young girl becomes a child bride every 15 seconds, often without having a say in the matter.
More than 700 million women living today worldwide were married before the age of 18, with UNICEF predicting that number will grow to 950 million within 15 years.
Families marry off their daughters for a variety of reasons, but oftentimes child marriages occur because parents are trying to protect their daughters from a rash of problems, including rape and sexual assault, which are common in impoverished or refugee communities.
In 2013, for example, a quarter of Syrian refugee girls in Jordan between the ages of 15 and 17 were married, according to the report.
The countries with the highest rates of child marriage are among the poorest in the world: Chad, Somalia, Niger, Mali, and the Central African Republic.
Although parents may be trying to protect their daughters, Save the Children finds that child marriage often starts a “cycle of disadvantage” for women.
"Child marriage starts a cycle of disadvantage that denies girls the most basic rights to learn, develop and be children," reports the BBC. "Girls who marry too early often can't attend school, and are more likely to face domestic violence, abuse and rape.”
Malawi’s 2015 Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, which prevents child marriage for young girls, is championed by President Arthur Peter Mutharika and prominent Malawian chief Theresa Kachindamoto, as well as the UN and Ms. Watson’s HeForShe campaign.
Cooperation between Malawian government officials, child rights champions, and the United Nations could result in better lives for Malawi’s young women, and the UN hopes to see this success replicated elsewhere.
“It’s so encouraging to see how such a harmful practice can be stopped when communities work together to pass laws, and then turn those laws into reality,” said Watson.