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 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT