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Child Brides: The Cost of saying "I Do"

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At first glance, Nujood Ali's story appears not much different from that of so many other wives around the world every day. Beaten and sexually abused by her husband, Ali pleaded for a divorce.

There is one element that takes this story from the tragic to the truly horrific: Ali was only 10 years old.

Ali lives in Yemen, where 14 per cent of girls are forced into marriage before the age of 15. She is one of the lucky ones. She escaped.

Defying Yemen's traditional culture, Ali slipped away from her family while on a visit home and made her way alone across the city of Sana'a to the courthouse. She camped out there, trying to get the attention of a judge to hear her plea. Her story reached the ears of Shada Nasser, a prominent female Yemeni human rights lawyer, who took on Ali's case. Together they won her freedom.

Every single day, worldwide, more than 25,000 girls under the age of 18 become brides. That's more than 10 million a year. One in seven girls in the developing world will be married before their 15th birthday. Some brides are as young as eight or nine.

When a young girl is forced to marry, she loses nearly everything.

She loses her childhood. She is forced into sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and childbirth before she is emotionally and physically ready.

She loses her education. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Irish President Mary Robinson recently told us about their visit to Ethiopia, where they met child brides. Robinson asked one of them what was her strongest memory of her wedding day was? The girl replied, "That was the day I had to leave school."

She loses opportunities. Because most child brides are forced to leave school, they are less able to access economic opportunities to generate income and lift their families out of poverty.

She likely loses her health, and possibly even her life. A girl under 15 is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman over 20. The risk of complications like fistula in pregnancy and childbirth is much higher. Her children will be as much as 60 per cent more likely to die before their first birthday, than children born to a mother over 19.

The plight of child brides has drawn the attention of some pretty powerful intellects.

Tutu and Robinson are members of The Elders, a gathering of world-respected senior statespersons who have come together to apply their considerable knowledge and experience to identifying the world's biggest problems, and finding solutions. They told us that what they saw in Ethiopia led them to make child marriage one of their top priorities.

In a short video, Robinson explains why, among all the world's challenges, they have set their sights on child marriage: "How can you improve girls' education when they are taken out of school to be married? How can you reduce maternal or child mortality, when girls are giving birth at 12 or 13? How can you reduce poverty when child marriage perpetuates poverty?"

According to The Elders, child marriage is an obstacle to achieving six of the eight Millennium Development Goals.

The Elders aren't the only ones raising alarms. As the global population passed seven billion late this year, the United Nations Population Fund released its State of the World Population report, identifying the issues and challenges facing our world as the size of humanity continues to grow.

The report draws a pretty clear line -- child marriages contribute to higher fertility rates in developing countries, and higher fertility rates lead to increased poverty.

It's a vicious circle because as much as child marriage leads to poverty, poverty leads back around to child marriage. Nujood Ali's family had 16 children, and her father had no job. In families like this, selling a daughter to be married means dowry money from the husband and one less mouth to feed.

In drought-ravished Kenya this summer, we heard about "drought brides" -- girls sold by their parents to raise money to feed their desperately hungry families.

The Elders believe that child marriage is a neglected issue. "People don't seem to talk much about child brides," Tutu laments in the video with Robinson. "Perhaps it is seen as a family issue, but not a public one. Or a cultural issue, and not one of human rights."

Tutu and Robinson and their influential colleagues are fighting back against child marriage by speaking out, and encouraging others to do the same. At this year's conference of the Clinton Global Initiative, Tutu and Robinson launched The Elders' new worldwide campaign: Girls Not Brides.

The campaign web site contains a wealth of information on child marriage around the world, and ways all of us can get involved.

Girls like Ali have the right to a childhood. They have the right to go to school. They have the right to choose when, and to whom, they marry. We can protect that right by speaking out and making child marriage a front page issue.

"I cannot stay silent," says Tutu.

Neither can we.