A report released by UNICEF today highlights some distressing statistics regarding female genital mutilation and child marriage, which as the press release describes, "profoundly and permanently harm girls, denying them their right to make their own decisions and to reach their full potential."
It found that 700 million women who are alive today were married under the age of 18; 250 million were married before 15. Child marriage is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with one in three child brides living in India. Despite varying legal statuses around the world regarding the legal age of marriage, there are many factors playing into the situation, allowing cultures around the world to default to tradition and status. For example, women in a higher socioeconomic class often get married much later on than women in poverty. Also, according to the International Center for Research on Women, girls with higher levels of education are less likely to marry as children.
But in war-stricken areas, child marriages are seen as a way to protect girls from rape and kidnap, a way to help them have a better life, a way to avoid honor killings—which is horrific seeing as child marriage itself is an act of kidnapping and rape. It's merely more official, though not always documented. Recently The Guardian's Mona Mahmood spoke with a few Syrian mothers who had arranged their teenage daughters' marriage. Their tales are harrowing:
My daughters were a huge burden to me. I never thought I would think of them like that. I was so glad when they born. You can't imagine the fear of a mother when she looks at her daughter and thinks she might be raped at any moment. It is horrible to think if the rape story became known publicly, her uncles would kill her immediately. I felt like dying when I thought of that moment.
Other mothers described the pain of explaining the duties of being a wife to their teenage daughters and watching their daughters cry about the trauma of sharing a bed with an older stranger. One woman's son-in-law complained that it was hard to "put up with" her 15-year-old daughter's "stubbornness and childlike demeanour" whenever he tried to touch her.
Of course, child marriage is not limited to conflict areas (though there is overlap)—it's a practice that is rampant globally. Along with the child marriage stats, the UNICEF report also outlined data regarding FGM. Although girls are a third less likely to undergo FGM, more than 130 millions girls and women have experienced cutting in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East:
Attitudes are also changing: recent data show that the majority of people in the countries where FGM is practiced believe it should end, but continue to compel their daughters to undergo the procedure because of strong social pressure.
In response to the report, UNICEF is co-hosting the first Girl Summit today in London, working to mobilize "domestic and international efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) within a generation." Executive Director Anthony Lake (pictured above) stated:
"The numbers tell us we must accelerate our efforts. And let's not forget that these numbers represent real lives. While these are problems of a global scale, the solutions must be local, driven by communities, families and girls themselves to change mindsets and break the cycles that perpetuate FGM/C and child marriage.
"We can't let the staggering numbers numb us – they must compel us to act."
Image via Getty.