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Students, Not Brides

LONDON – A few weeks ago in Mozambique, 19-year-old Rosanna told me, “If I could give one message to other young girls, it would be to stay in education, and out of marriage.” She spoke from experience; Rosanna was a child bride, just like nearly half of all girls in her country.

The link between education and marriage is essential. Indeed, the more I speak to girls like Rosanna, who were wrenched out of childhood and married before the age of 18, the more I am convinced of the inverse relationship between the prevalence of child marriage and access to education. I will never forget the young Ethiopian girl who described her wedding day to me as “the day that I had to leave school.”

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Rosanna, too, nearly had to write off her education on her wedding day. She was in school when she became pregnant. Growing up in a society where talking about sex is taboo meant that she did not understand what sex was, let alone that it could result in pregnancy. When she found out that she was pregnant, marriage became inevitable – and so, it seemed, did dropping out of school.

In fact, Rosanna’s potential could have been extinguished at the moment when her new husband demanded that she end her education – a demand imposed on many child brides. But Rosanna was exceptionally courageous and refused, claiming control of her own future. Unfortunately, most child brides do not have that option, and end up facing a far bleaker fate.

When girls like Rosanna stay in education, instead of marrying early, the benefits are not theirs alone; their countries’ economies gain as well. If Niger, for example, were to end child marriage by 2030, the combination of higher educational attainment and lower fertility rates would leave the country $25 billion richer than it was in 2015. That should be enough to make any government pay attention.

But the benefits of education extend far beyond statistics. After all, students do not just learn subjects like math, science, and literacy at school. They also develop friendships and learn life skills, such as how to articulate opinions, negotiate, listen, and be respectful toward others. All of these lessons help to boost not just their earning power, but also their confidence and capacity to participate in public life.

Beyond creating a better life for herself, an educated, empowered girl supports the prosperity of members of her family and wider community – including fathers, brothers, and husbands, as much as mothers and sisters. In short, we all benefit when girls are able to live up to their full potential.

Seen in this light, ending child marriage and improving education for girls is a no-brainer. Yet only nine developing countries have developed national strategies to end child marriage. Meanwhile, 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year – that is a marriage every two seconds. At this rate, in 2050, 1.2 billion women will have been married as children.

A lack of quality, safe, and accessible education options surely contributes to this dire reality. Beyond the low-quality education delivered at many schools, girls can face sexual harassment on the way from home to school. Teachers might demand sexual favors in exchange for fair grades. Parents might decide that they would rather put their daughters in the perceived “safety” of marriage, instead of exposing them to these risks. This partly explains why 65 million girls of primary- and early-secondary-school age are out of school.

Recognizing the link between child marriage and education should be central to developing countries’ development strategies. But education often gets much higher billing than child marriage. The failure to integrate measures to tackle child marriage into development programs hindered progress on six of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which guided global development efforts from 2000 to 2015.

The good news is that this is changing. Last year, when world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals to succeed the MDGs, they included targets for both education (to ensure that all children “complete free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education”) and child marriage (to eliminate “all harmful practices” against girls and women, “such as child, early, and forced marriage”).

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Ensuring that girls can be students, not brides, is essential to achieving gender equality and economic prosperity. Only with a holistic approach – which integrates protections against child marriage, equitable educational opportunities, adolescent health, and poverty reduction – can we ensure that girls and women worldwide have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, and thus to contribute positively to their societies.

We all need to encourage governments around the world to fulfill their promises to end child marriage and improve girls’ access to education. As Rosanna put it, “We have to fight for our future and the future of our children.”