Skip to main content

Child brides robbed of their future

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN
updated 8:14 PM EDT, Fri October 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gayle Lemmon: Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai raised her voice for girls' education
  • Lemmon says girls in South Asia are married as children at high rate and are denied an education
  • She says educated girls make more money, their babies live longer, their families benefit
  • Lemmon: If married early, girls have higher mortality, HIV rates and poverty

Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She wrote "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a book that tells the story of an Afghan girl whose business created jobs and hope during the Taliban years.

(CNN) -- One year ago, Taliban gunmen in Pakistan boarded a school van and shot Malala Yousafzai, then 15, for speaking out for girls' education. Malala survived the tragedy, and her courageous story of a teenage girl who would not be silenced inspired tens of millions more in the fight for girls' rights.

As Malala said in July during her historic address at the United Nations, "I raise up my voice -- not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard."

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

And as the world marks International Day of the Girl on Friday, it is worth remembering all those young girls, the same age as Malala and some even younger, whose voices go unheard: the millions of child brides around the world robbed of their youth and their rights, including the chance at education.

The world will never know the talent it loses to early forced marriages. Most of the world's child brides reside in Malala's home region of South Asia. In her native Pakistan, almost one-fourth of the country's girls find themselves in unions or marriages by age 18. India, Pakistan's neighbor to the east, has more child brides than any other country in the world, with 47% of all of the country's more than 600 million girls married before their 18th birthday.

In Bangladesh, 66% of girls end up becoming child brides, the third-highest rate in the world. The tradition of child marriage, reinforced by poverty, instability and a lack of resources, has proven hard to fight even in this era of globalization.

Education has proven to be one of the most potent weapons in the fight against child marriage. According to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to end child marriage, a girl who receives seven or more years of schooling will marry an average of four years later. In Mozambique, around 60% of girls without an education are married by 18, compared with 10% who complete secondary schooling. That number drops to nearly zero for those who are able to reach higher education.

CNN Hero: Kakenya Ntaiya
Battle against child bride kidnappings
Child bride: I was sold for $1,000

When a girl can become a student instead of a bride, her family benefits.

A study in Pakistan measuring returns on education showed that extending a girl's schooling by one year led to a 13% to 18% increase in her wages. Data from a Population Reference Bureau study put that number at up to 20%. A baby born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to live past the age of 5. And child vaccination rates quadruple when mothers are educated.

When girls become brides, on the other hand, schooling is often not an option. Even if husbands and their families permit the girl to go to school, the immediate push to have children makes girls much more likely to drop out. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for girls ages 15 to 19.

Child brides have precious few paths to earning an income and to contributing to their family's economic health, leaving girls ensnared in a vicious cycle of poverty. Domestic violence and HIV transmission also increase dramatically when girls marry at a young age, further threatening both the girls and the well-being of their children.

For every Malala you meet there are many more whose stories will never be known -- girls robbed of their chance to pursue their dreams and to go to school simply because they are girls. That is not just their loss; it is ours.

Girls are a precious natural resource. And we don't have talent to waste.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT