girls

{Photo: MSH staff/Tanzania}Photo: MSH staff/Tanzania

Invest in teenage girls. Change the world.

Sylvia, age 16, knew little about HIV & AIDS or reproductive health when she started primary school. Now, she says: “I am not scared by the pressure from boys and other girls to engage in early sex, I know my rights and am determined to fulfill my vision of completing my education.” Sylvia is one of 485 girls in 6 eastern Ugandan schools who received integrated sexual and reproductive health and HIV information.

Today, July 11, we commemorate World Population Day 2016 and the midpoint toward reaching the Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) goal to ensure the right of 120 million additional women and girls to access contraception. More than half of the 7 billion people on earth are under the age of 30. Most of the FP2020 focus countries are in the very regions of the world where we find (a) the highest population of youth and (b) more marginalized and disenfranchised young people. In many of the world's poorest countries, people aged 15 to 29 will continue to comprise about half of the population for the next four decades.

{Photo credit: Andrew Esiebo/MSH Nigeria}Photo credit: Andrew Esiebo/MSH Nigeria

I am a woman. I am a Nigerian. I am a mother. I am a leader. And, I am a daughter. As the Nigerian country representative, I guide Management Sciences for Health (MSH)’s efforts to ensure the people of my country have access to quality health services. Indeed, I am many things. Before all else:

I am a woman of Nigeria.

The Girl Child in Nigeria

From the beginning, our girl children are at a disadvantage.

Our culture (like many are) is strongly patriarchal. The boy child is given higher status than the girl child. If a family has to choose, the boy child is the first to go to school. The girl child is the first to be dropped from school.

No matter how young she is, the girl child feels that it is her responsibility to care for her siblings. She is expected to take on added responsibilities and earn money to keep the other children. This pressure frequently leads to early sexual activity, transactional sex, and sex with older men-- increasing her risk of getting HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections.

Then Boko Haram came to the North East Zone of Nigeria. They take our girls away. They abuse them. They rape them. They marry them off to older men.

Seven-year-old Ladi Muhammed. Nigeria. {Photo credit: S. J. Garlora / MSH.}Photo credit: S. J. Garlora / MSH.

Seven-year-old Ladi Muhammed wants to become a teacher. The third of five children ranging 3 to 20 years old, Ladi and her family live in a poor Nigerian village.

The likelihood of Ladi attending primary school is low.

Public primary education is free in Nigeria, but Ladi’s parents can barely afford to feed their children. The children supplement their parents’ income with menial jobs, such as street trading, which leaves little time or energy for schooling.

Her father, Ahmadu Mohammed, wants to send all of his children to school, but does not have the financial means to do so. “It is my heartfelt desire to send my children to school, but I can’t support them due to the meager salary I earn from my work as a gateman. Our situation is tough; we can barely feed ourselves,” says Mohammed.

Without an education, Ladi’s desire to one day become a teacher appeared a distant dream.

International Day of the Girl: End Child MarriageInternational Day of the Girl: End Child Marriage

My grandmother married at 8 years old; my mother married at age 15.

I often wonder what their lives --- their potential --- would have been, if they were not child brides.

Today, the same pattern is repeated in villages and cities around the world. Every year, nearly ten million girls are forced into marriage before they reach the age of 18 --- with little or no say in the matter.

That’s more than 25,000 girls a day; 19 girls each minute.

These girls are denied the opportunity to fulfill their potential for healthy and productive lives. When they enter marriage, most drop out of school and enter a world where they work from dusk to dawn to provide labor to the households. From their mothers' care they are transferred to the supervision of their husbands and mothers-in-law, who view them as an additional labor source. Pressured to demonstrate their fertility, they get pregnant when they are still children and face the risk of illness or death when they deliver.

And some child brides are as young as eight or nine.

Girl from Uganda. {Photo credit: MSH.}Photo credit: MSH.

The press statement title caught my attention: “Members Continue Efforts to Protect Rights of Women in Developing Countries.”

With piqued interest, I read on:

Congresswoman Betty McCollum and Aaron Schock have once again introduced legislation to stem the devastating impact of child marriage on young girls in developing countries.  The McCollum-Schock International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, House Resolution (H.R.) 6087, promotes and protects the rights of girls in the developing world.

I was pleased to learn that H.R. 6087 establishes a strategy to prevent child marriage and promote the empowerment of girls.  The legislation also integrates the issue of preventing child marriage into existing US development programs, and requires that relevant agencies collect and make available data on the rates of child marriage and its impact on meeting key development goals.

While global health and policy efforts to protect young girls from early or forced marriage are increasing, millions of girls are forced into early marriage every year. Pictured: four Senegalese girls. {Photo credit: S. Galdos/MSH.}Photo credit: S. Galdos/MSH.

If you think that child marriage is not an issue in the twenty-first century, think again.  In developing countries, 82 million girls who are now ages 10 to 17 will be married before their 18th birthday. Over the past decade, 58 million girls in developing countries -- one in three -- have been married under the age of 18; 15 million -- one in nine -- were married by age 15.

These girls are often married against their will, despite national laws that prohibit marriage until the age of 18, and numerous international declarations, conventions, and global conferences that “guarantee” the rights of girls, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Senate Passes Preventing Child Marriage Act

Child marriage is increasingly becoming a hot topic within the realm of global health -- and influencing U.S. domestic and global policy.

The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (S. 414) -- reintroduced in the U.S. Congress in February 2011 --- passed on the Senate floor by way of voice vote on May 24, 2012. (The bill also passed the Senate unanimously in December 2010.)

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