A recent viral video of a 9 year-old Afghan girl being sold as a child “bride” rocked me to my core but the truth is even worse than people understand. Every year across the world, 12 million young girls under the age of 18 are forced into “marriage.” This equates to 28 young girls, mere children, married every minute. Where are the women who march around our nation’s cities in pink hats in the name of women’s rights and empowerment right now? Silent.
The effects on girls forced into marriage at such an early age are detrimental and impact their whole life: literacy, health, and overall well-being. Girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth, and, just as devastating, a child born to a child bride is 60% more likely to die in their first year of life. These young brides also may not have access to healthcare because they typically exhibit signs of physical and sexual abuse for which their “husbands” would be prosecuted.
The CNN piece mentioned above highlighted the story of a 9-year-old girl in Afghanistan that was sold by her family to a 55-year-old man for $2,000 so that her family would have money for food. This family had been plunged into extreme poverty, a shocking and heartbreaking tale becoming even more common since the disastrous departure of the U.S. from the region.
Our exit undoubtedly left behind Americans, Afghani families, children, and especially women and girls. Poverty, conflict, and persecution are increasing, and along with it all – so is child marriage. In times of extreme conflict, women and girls are at a higher risk of suffering from sexual violence and human trafficking. Child marriage often falls under one of these two categories.
The atrocity of child brides happens worldwide and the Middle East is not the biggest culprit. According to UNICEF, the highest levels are found in West and Central Africa. Almost 4 in 10 girls are married before age 18. Lower levels are found in Eastern and Southern Africa (31%), South Asia (28%), and the Caribbean (22%). This is a practice that affects 650 million girls worldwide.
Girls deserve better. They deserve the protection of their innocence, to play as a child, to receive an education, and to dream about their futures. For young girls in Afghanistan especially, this is not the reality. They are in extreme and absolute danger under the Taliban regime, and it shows no signs of improving.
The United States must step forward and work to end the practice of child brides. We cannot ignore girls’ lives being ruined by being forced into a marriage when they should still be playing at recess. As women, we cannot remain blind to this reality. There are no simple answers, but there are some bottom line principles. U.S. aid to offending countries should be tied to reform. Grants to NGOs working internationally for women’s health should require efforts to stop child brides. Shockingly, a top official from the Gates Foundation once told me that to stand against child marriage amounted to paternalism. No, it’s a basic human rights issue.
It’s time for woke feminists and conservative women across America to see beyond our first-world complaints, to recognize how privileged we are to be women in a country where these practices are illegal and largely unthinkable. When will it be enough for us to realize holding concert rallies and attacking each other will not move the needle on human rights for girls? It’s time to stand up and stand together to work to empower and save women and girls around the world experiencing true oppression. When woke feminists are ready to wake up and join us in this fight, we’ll be waiting.