Focus on Education: To improve education globally we must end child marriage

A version of this post originally appeared on Interagency Youth Working Group Blog. Reposted with permission.

It seems remarkable that 11 October 2013 marks only the second time that the global community has come together to celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child. Has it really taken us this long to recognise that adolescent girls hold the key to building a healthier, safer, more prosperous world?

The theme for Day of the Girl 2013 – ‘Innovating for girls’ education’ – highlights this link, and recognises that we are unlikely to address global poverty if we don’t enable girls to complete their education. The case is clear. Girls who complete secondary school earn significantly more as adults. They are more likely to know about and use reproductive health services. And the benefits spill over to the next generation as well: mortality rates of children whose mothers have at least seven years of education are up to 58% lower than those among children whose mothers have no education.

Despite all we know about the benefits of education for girls, millions of girls miss out. Indeed, only 30 per cent of girls around the world are enrolled in secondary school. That is why on Day of the Girl 2013, we cannot ignore the practices that keep girls out of the classroom.

Child marriage is a major barrier to progress on girls’ education. When girls marry as children, they usually drop out of school, forced to abandon schoolbooks for household chores. They are denied the opportunity to learn the skills that could help them earn a safe, dependable income as adults and which are necessary to build a sustainable and prosperous future for their communities. Every year approximately 14 million girls a year marry before they turn 18. While not all of them will drop out of school, most do. How can we get all girls in school, when child marriage keeps pulling them out?

Efforts to improve education for girls must therefore go hand-in-hand with those to address child marriage. And education can in fact be one of the most powerful tools to enable girls to avoid early marriage: girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children when compared to girls who have little or no education. The longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to be married before the age of 18 and to have children during her teenage years.

For many families, however, it can be difficult to see education as a better option for their daughters than marriage, and we have to address the factors that threaten the confidence or ability of families to keep their children in school: including the safety, quality and accessibility of schooling options.

Let’s look at safety: the journey to school can often be dangerous for adolescent girls, who may live in rural areas far from the nearest secondary school, without any adequate transport options. We can address this by providing girls with safe and reliable transport to and from school. Gender-based violence at school is also not uncommon, and can undermine the safety of girls. One way to begin to address this would be to provide separate toilet facilities for girls and boys. These are just some of the practical ways in which we can help parents – and the girls themselves – view education as a viable option.

If we are to make a difference on education and child marriage, we also have to pay close attention to girls during the critical transition from primary to secondary school, as school dropout rates for girls escalate during this transition period. And it is essential to ensure that girls who are already married, yet who wish to continue their education, are not prevented from doing so. We see many cases where child brides who want to continue to learn yet are excluded from school – either practically or legally – because they are married. Why should they pay the price for a decision in which they had no say?

There’s another, crucial reason why efforts to improve education for girls must go hand-in-hand with efforts to address child marriage. One of the fundamental factors that underpin both the decision to keep girls out of school and to marry them off is the low status of girls.

In many places, girls are deemed a burden. When a family living in poverty has limited means, marrying off their daughter may provide welcome income in the form of a dowry or bride price and it also means they will have one less mouth to feed. Similarly, when a family does not have enough resources to send all the children to school, they invariably choose to focus on the education of the sons, not the daughters.

It’s not easy to change such deeply entrenched social norms, and it requires dialogue with a whole range of people and groups, including parents and communities. One piece of the solution is to provide sexuality education for girls and boys that explicitly addresses gender inequality. Providing such education, both in and out of school, is critical for girls to understand their body and rights, including to decide if, when and whom to marry. Sexuality education also helps both girls and boys to understand that girls are equal to boys and that violence is never acceptable.

On Day of the Girl 2013 we are reminded that we must innovate to improve girls’ education. Let’s not forget that innovation takes many forms, including thinking creatively about how to address the underlying factors that keep girls out of school.

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