750 million women alive today were married as children; more than one in three before they were 15 years old. Over the next 30 years, it's estimated that at least 280 million more girls under 18 will be married.
The numbers are staggering. But behind each statistic is a child robbed of the right to make their own critical choices in life, to determine their own destiny, and to realize their full potential.
In Ethiopia recently, I met Aneley Ashafric, a teacher from the town of Hamusit--which means Thursday in Amharic after the town's market day. He told me about a girl in one of his classes some years ago.
Aneley began to pick up on signs that the girl's family was preparing her for an early marriage, and was worried what that could mean for her future. He initiated conversations with the girl's family and other community members on the importance of finishing her education and encouraging her to stay in school. After consideration, the family agreed to put off the wedding. The young girl stayed in school and rose to the top of her class.
Ending child marriage is about more than simply protecting children. It's about promoting their rights and providing them with opportunities to reach their full potential.
It was a beautiful story about a girl who will continue to realize her full potential while she focuses on her education. But stories like these are the exception rather than the rule.
In Nigeria, 23 million girls and women were married in childhood - the largest number in Africa. In Mauritania, 60 per cent of married adolescent girls have husbands who are at least 10 years older than them. In Guinea-Bissau, one in three married adolescent girls are in a polygynous union.
Child marriage is a gross violation of girls' rights. It denies them their childhood, and too often ends their education, endangers their health and exposes them to violence.
Behind each statistic is a child robbed of the right to make their own critical choices in life.
Ending child marriage is about more than simply protecting children. It's about promoting their rights and providing them with opportunities to reach their full potential. The story Aneley told me is one of millions of children's stories that drive us at UNICEF Canada to fight for their rights. The results are tangible and the proof is clear: when you invest in a girl's future, the whole community benefits. And, when the solution to a problem is local and driven by the affected communities themselves, it works.
This week, I'm proud to join Global Affairs Canada and Girls Not Brides to celebrate the International Day of the African Child on June 16, with the launch of Girl's Voices: Speaking Out Against Child Marriage. The photography exhibition, which has already toured more than 15 countries, tells the stories of child, early and forced marriage from the perspective of girls and women affected.
Canada has shown strong leadership on this issue, introducing the first-ever standalone resolution to end child, early and forced marriage at the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, and working to sponsor a further resolution at the 2016 General Assembly.
With Canada's support, UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund have also been building a global program to accelerate an end to child marriage by promoting school enrollment, educating parents and communities, supporting legislative change, and empowering girls with the life skills they need to succeed.
When we invest in their rights, we enable children to grow into the people that will change our world for the better.
The growing international movement of partners working towards the same cause is inspiring. From the Government of Canada to those in high prevalence countries, from other UN agencies to Girls Not Brides, a worldwide partnership of more than 500 civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage, the world is coming together like never before. But there is much more to be done if we want to achieve the global sustainable development agenda we have set for ourselves through the Global Goals by 2030.
With the child population of Africa expected to grow rapidly in the next few years, millions more girls will be at risk. We must increase investments in education to ensure all children benefit from at least nine years of quality education. We must ensure flexible educational options for girls who are already married. We must support adolescent-friendly health services. And, we must continue working to protect children and their rights.
When we allow children to be married, we are betraying their futures, and we are betraying all of our societies by not taking advantage of their full potential. But, when we invest in their rights, we enable children to grow into the people that will change our world for the better.
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