But when she was 14, her father decided it was time for her to get married. Without her consent. To a man 10 years her senior. Her plans to become a doctor came to an abrupt halt.
Today, Majerah's days are full of housework, not homework. She's forced to serve her new husband's family, and is treated with disdain because she hasn't had a child. Sometimes, her husband hits her.
"I feel I am not alive anymore," she told our Save the Children colleagues on the ground. "One cannot live without hopes and dreams."
As the CEO of Save the Children and the former second lady, we have seen the tragedy of lost childhood firsthand. It often goes unspoken of and unnoticed. But as Frederick Douglass once said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." From poverty to women's rights to violence, we know that statement is powerfully true -- for both individual lives and for our communities as a whole. After all, when Majerah's childhood ended at age 14, her village also lost out on a doctor who could have improved the health of the entire village, both men and women.
Childhood should be a time of discovery, a time when possibilities are limited only by imagination, when girls and boys get the chance to decide who they'll become in the world. But instead, stories like Majerah's (whose name has been changed) are all too common. Sadly there are many reasons childhood ends too soon.
If we hope to prevent stories like this and help more children grow to be healthy, strong adults, we understand the true scope of the problem we're up against. So Save the Children commissioned a report, the first in what will become an annual series, to learn just how pervasive stories like Majerah's are. We are releasing the results
, just ahead of International Children's Day.
Using data primarily from UN agencies, our report tracks what are called "childhood enders": events like death, malnutrition, leaving school, going to work, marrying and becoming a parent, or suffering extreme violence.
We found that right now, 700 million children across the world are being forced in heartbreaking ways to grow up before their time. Many will never have the chance to finish school. Some, like Majerah, are getting married or pregnant long before they are ready. Some aren't getting enough nutritious food, and will develop health problems that can last a lifetime because of it. Some have been pushed from their homes because of violence, or made to perform backbreaking work in dangerous environments, just to help their families survive. Growing numbers of children now live in countries affected by instability and conflict where they have nearly twice the risk of dying before their fifth birthday as children in non-fragile countries.
And while these problems are most prevalent in the world's poorest places, they affect children in places you wouldn't expect, including here at home; in fact the United States ranks 36th in our index, between Bosnia and Russia. In the United States, there are states where nearly one in three
teenagers don't graduate high school. We recently visited a school in rural Appalachia, where we met with students who were bright and fascinating and full of potential. But they, like children around the world, faced too many barriers to exploring that potential: high rates of teen pregnancy, limited access to health care, poverty so severe that, for many families, nutritious food
was hard to come by.
Each of those 700 million children has a unique contribution to make, if only they are given the chance. Aside from the moral imperative of defending a child's right to be a child, when we allow children to go hungry, to miss out on an education, to live with their basic needs unmet, we lose a generation of adults whose hard work could drive economic growth, whose intelligence could improve our communities, and whose creativity could dream up the new ideas that drive progress.
The importance of investing in children -- of investing in our future -- is something upon which we should all agree. We need to understand the pervasiveness of childhood "enders," and find concrete ways to combat them. We hope you will let your lawmakers know that their constituents, at least, have reached a consensus: Every child, everywhere, deserves a real childhood.