Parents unable to look after children are marrying them off at a tender age, exposing them to maternal deaths.
Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi were 16-year-old girls just beginning to plan careers as social workers or nurses when they were forced to marry men they had not chosen.
Their dreams of a better life might have ended that day, as do the dreams of so many girls around the world who are married off while still young girls.
But Loveness and Ruvimbo refused to accept a future not of their own choosing. Now 19 and 18, they are determined to seek justice for themselves and for other girls who are routinely denied the right to decide when and whom to marry. They are asking the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe to declare that no girl or boy may enter into marriage – including marriages recognised in traditional or customary law – before they are 18 years old. They argue that the law must be unequivocal: Child marriage is illegal and unacceptable. The court has yet to rule.
Their courageous legal challenge could make waves not only in Zimbabwe but across Africa – and even globally.
Every year, 15 million child brides are thrust into adulthood while still children themselves. In the aggregate, 700 million women alive today – more than double the total population of the United States – were married or in a union as girls. More than one in three were married before they reached the age of 15.
Child marriage isn’t only about a wedding day – it holds back a girl for the rest of her life. Child brides usually drop out of school. Housework, not homework, becomes their priority. Pressured to have children – several and quickly – girls risk dying during pregnancy and childbirth. Married young girls are also more vulnerable to domestic violence and abuse.
What a waste of potential – not only for individual girls, but also for their families and their communities.
In fact, the statistics and stories of child marriage are a stark indicator of a problem that is sapping the strength of societies in which child marriage is prevalent. Studies are beginning to show that high rates of child marriage are a significant drag on economic growth. For example, the estimated cost of inaction on child marriage in Nepal was over 3.8 percent of GDP in 2014 alone.
With evidence like this mounting, some governments are beginning to take action to address child marriage. Last year, the African Union launched a two-year Africa-wide campaign on child marriage, and countries in the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation adopted a regional action plan to end child marriage. In November, the UN General Assembly passed its first substantive resolution reflecting broad recognition that child marriage holds back girls, their families and the development of our nations.
Despite declining rates of child marriage in recent years, progress is not keeping pace with population growth. If we don't scale up our ambitions - and our efforts - the number of child brides will rise again.
Countries where child marriage is common are also stepping up. The governments of Nepal and Zambia are developing national action plans to help girls avoid child marriage. In Egypt and Togo, new strategies are pushing for nationwide change in attitudes on child marriages.
Not enough progress
This is welcome progress, but it is not enough. Despite declining rates of child marriage in recent years, progress is not keeping pace with population growth. If we don’t scale up our ambitions – and our efforts – the number of child brides will rise again.
Promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment was included in the Millennium Development Goals, but child marriage was not explicitly addressed. We have a chance to change that now, as the international community sets the road map for the next 15 years in the form of the new Sustainable Development Goals.
We must not miss this chance again. But neither should we wait for the world to rally around the SDGs to act. Governments must do more – directing their ministries of health, welfare, education, justice and, yes, even finance, to make ending child marriage a priority.
This means more than changing policies. It means changing mind-sets.
For we will only end child marriage when families understand why marriage at such a young age will hold their daughters back and endanger them.
When communities see that girls have equal value to boys.
When governments recognise the inseparable link between educated, empowered girls and stronger societies.
We must match the courage of Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi with our own commitment to ending child marriage in this generation.
Geeta Rao Gupta is deputy executive director of UNICEF.
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda is Goodwill Ambassador for the AU Campaign to End Child Marriage and general secretary of the World YWCA.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.