It was the middle of the night in Kenya, and 11-year-old Miriam was hiding outside a stranger’s house, waiting to talk to the woman who lived inside. Miriam hadn’t met her before, but she knew her name: Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya, who ran a school for girls at risk of child marriage.
When Dr. Ntaiya emerged, Miriam told her everything—how she’d just finished fourth grade, how her father had died in an accident, how her family was running low on money, and how, to help pay the bills, they were planning to marry her off for a dowry. Miriam had already seen her friends marry and quit school. She was desperate to avoid that—and Dr. Ntaiya was her only hope.
Each year, an estimated 12 million girls around the world, including in the United States and Europe, find themselves in Miriam’s situation because they’re caught in a web of economic, educational, and cultural systems that deprive them of choices and opportunities.
Globally, child marriage is one of the biggest threats to girls’ empowerment and education. As the data shows, marrying young has dire consequences: Child brides are more likely to leave school, experience violence, struggle to earn an income, have an unintended pregnancy, and suffer a miscarriage or die during pregnancy.
But when girls go to school, we are all better off: poverty goes down, economies grow, and babies are born healthier. The ripple effects extend throughout countries and across the globe.
As climate change and natural disasters threaten crop yields, COVID-19 continues to constrain businesses and livelihoods, and inflation raises prices and pushes people into poverty, the pressure on families only grows. And that means their daughters will continue to be used as pawns in an economic and sociocultural game in which they have little or no power.
That’s something Dr. Ntaiya knows too well.
When she was just 5 years old, she was engaged to be married. Like Miriam, she desperately sought a way out and knew that education was her best solution. So she made an impossible decision. At 12 years old, she agreed to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) if her father allowed her to complete her education. He agreed.
Years later, she founded an organization to protect girls from child marriage, abuse, and FGM, and set them on a path to higher education. What did she call it? Kakenya’s Dream.
When she met a panicked Miriam outside her house, it was an easy decision for her—yes, of course Miriam had a place at Kakenya’s Dream. Yes, of course she could get her education.
The three of us hear stories like Miriam’s as a call to action. Our partnership is grounded in our belief in the value of every girl and a shared commitment to seeing girls everywhere reach their full potential. Child marriage is a barrier to the better, more equal world girls deserve. That’s why our organizations—and our partners at Girls First Fund, Girls Not Brides, and VOW for Girls—are joining forces to help end the practice once and for all.
Together, we are working to increase funding for this issue, support civil society-led efforts, and amplify the voices of the girls and leaders who are driving real change in their countries and communities.
We know this is not an easy endeavor—there are many social, religious, and cultural norms that have upheld child marriage over centuries. But we also know that change is possible. There are interventions that work to reduce these marriages—and ultimately, will end them altogether. We’re focusing on three.
First, we are joining women and girls in taking legal action to advocate for their rights.
In far too many countries, child marriage is legally permitted. Often, girls themselves are leading efforts to reform these laws and increase girls’ access to education. For example, a courageous group of girls led by a young woman named Memory Banda successfully persuaded the Parliament of Malawi to adopt a constitutional amendment raising the legal age of marriage to 18 in 2017. Collective action and strategic litigation have also improved child-marriage laws in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and elsewhere.
We’re also teaming up with local leaders to reform discriminatory laws and ensure that women and girls have access to legal information and services so they can exercise their rights. For instance, in the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights, a landmark case challenged Tanzania’s policy of banning married and pregnant girls from school. The government has since announced a U-turn on this policy, which impacts 1 in 4 adolescent girls in the country. And we are supporting the establishment of “women for women” legal-aid clinics to connect women and girls to lawyers who can support them at no cost.
Next, we are supporting grassroots organizations that are transforming their communities.
Grassroots organizations like Kakenya’s Dream are part of a movement of organizations on the ground that have proven their ability to change hearts and minds.
In Nepal, the Janaki Women Awareness Society teaches young girls about their own rights and how to push for them within their families. Their approach is to coach girls through the process of self-advocacy and help them avoid marrying until they are ready. In Uganda, Resilient Women’s Organization (RWO) runs a shelter for girls who have escaped gender-based violence, are experiencing crisis pregnancies, or have removed themselves from abusive circumstances. Without RWO, these girls and young women would have no place to turn.
Finally, we’re working to equip girls and families with the most powerful tool to prevent child marriage: an education.
Keeping girls in school, particularly secondary school, is one of the surest ways to prevent child marriage. And educating girls in one generation can delay marriage across several generations. Today, more than 100 million girls are out of school, and it’s critical that their families and communities see their education as a basic right and important investment in our shared future. When girls are educated, they succeed. And in turn, we all do.
In the years since Miriam first met Dr. Ntaiya, she’s not only completed school, she’s married a man she loves — a man she chose. They’re raising livestock and harvesting sugarcane to earn money. And they’re raising a family together, too.
There are millions of stories like Miriam’s, and each of these girls deserves the same chance to live a life worthy of her dreams. That is only possible in a world without child marriage. We hope you’ll join us in taking action to end this practice and unlock a more equal future.
To fund grassroots organizations like the ones mentioned in this story, visit the Girls Opportunity Alliance and Girls First Fund. To learn more about ending child marriage visit Girls Not Brides. To find out more about our ongoing work to advance gender equality, visit the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Clooney Foundation for Justice, and VOW for Girls.
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