All her good memories are based on when she was playing with her brothers in her father’s house. She was 12 years old and happy. Now she sweeps outside her 40 year old husband’s compound with a baby in her belly. She hasn’t smiled since. Her skin no longer glows, her weight reduced so much she struggles to walk. She was sold for a measly 10 cows by her father. She had never even met this old man who would become her husband. This is now her reality. A reality for so many girls who out of no choice of their own, with barely any education, without her body fully matured, are married off.
“Child marriage refers to any marriage of a person below 18 –
Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.“
According to Plan-International 15 million girls marry before the age of 18 each year – the equivalent of one every 2 seconds. Between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides, according to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Furthermore, of the 140 million girls who will marry before they are 18, 50 million will be under the age of 15.
Early marriage denies girls their right to make vital decisions about their sexual health and well-being. It forces them out of education and into a life of poor prospects, with increased risk of violence, abuse, ill health or early death.
Girls married early are more likely to experience violence, abuse and forced sexual relations
Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second cause of death for 15-19 year-old girls globally. The younger the mother, the greater the risk to the baby. New-borns born to adolescent mothers are also more likely to have low birth weight, with the risk of long-term effects.
“No girl should be robbed of her childhood, her education and health, and her aspirations. Yet today millions of girls are denied their rights each year when they are married as child brides”, says Michelle Bachelet, M.D., Executive Director of UN Women.
Her Growth Matters Because She Matters
Delayed marriage, good education and nutrition can ultimately make a positive change in a girl’s life.
Education delivers recognized benefits, and is a core element of the overall empowerment of girls. Between 1990 and 2015, the average time girls spent in education increased globally from 4.7 years to 7.0 years; however, only 1% of the poorest girls in low-income countries completed secondary school education.
There is no equality without empowerment. There is no empowerment without knowledge. Our job is to foster the opportunities so that every woman, child and adolescent can understand — and demand —their rights.
The health, wealth and well-being of every generation depends directly on the mother’s position and health status. Young girls who manage to stay in school often perform better than boys. Ultimately, they become mothers, nourishing and raising the next generation. If they also manage to earn an income, they spend in on family, specifically the health, education and nutrition of their children (by contrast, an income increase for men does not translate into improved household outcomes).
Eating healthy food is important at any age, but it’s especially important for teenagers.
As a girl’s body is still growing, it’s vital that she eats enough good quality food and the right kinds to meet your energy and nutrition needs.
Adolescence is the second most physically demanding growth period after the first year of life – it is when we gain up to 50% of adult weight, 20% of adult height, and one third of adult bone mass. The timing of nutritional deficiencies can significantly affect brain development. During puberty our brains are structurally reorganised as brain and cognitive maturation occur, and major developments take place in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour.
This makes adolescence the best time to protect, promote and support optimal nutrition for girls, offering a window of opportunity to improve health, educational attainment and economic opportunities, not just for the girl herself but for her future children. Indeed, nutritional intervention during adolescence is the way to disrupt the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.
Meeting the full potential during this time requires meeting the protein, fat and other vital micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) needs. But the adolescent girl who falls pregnant, needs good nutrition even more – she has to provide for her needs and those of her growing foetus. Because she is still growing herself, the pregnant adolescent’s nutrient requirements multiply and there is evidence of competition between mother and foetus for nutrients.
Efforts to address child under nutrition have focused mainly on the first one thousand days between conception and a child’s second birthday. This is too late for women who are malnourished when they become pregnant. In fact, we need to focus on ensuring optimal nutrition in adolescent girls’ – they are the mothers of tomorrow.
Clearly, tomorrow’s mothers need good nutrition today.
Follow our campaign on Facebook (Bright4Africa Kenya and Bright4Africa South Africa) or Twitter (@Bright4AfricaK and @Bright4AfricaSA) as we cover different topics through the year on the important role of vitamins and minerals at significant life stages.
- Progress in Partnership: 2017 Progress Report on the Every Woman Every Child Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health WHO/FWC/NMC/17.3
- Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, Ministry of Health, National AIDS Control
Council, Kenya Medical Research Institute, National Council for Population and
Development, The DHS Program II. Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014.
The investments we make in women, children and adolescents will build a stronger, more resilient world for everyone. That means leaving no one behind. Together, we must reach women, children and adolescents everywhere but especially those who are hardest to reach; they form the last mile in vulnerability but the first mile in our response.
H.E. Elhadj As Sy, Secretary-General, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Member of the High-Level Steering Group for Every Woman Every Child