Girls Not Brides: Ending child marriages

Dutch Princess Mabel speaks on The West Block with Tom Clark about her work trying to end child marriages.

Fifteen million girls around the world are married before they turn 18 each year; in some developing countries, girls are married by the time most children in Canada are entering Grade 3 or Grade 4.

The practice — a disturbing product of poverty, security concerns and lack of knowledge — spans cultures and religions, said Netherlands’ Princess Mabel, an advisor to the international Girls Not Brides partnership.

But it can stop, she said, if communities around the world work to educate females and males of all ages, offer alternatives to child marriages such as secondary education for girls, improve health services and encourage countries to implement and enforce laws aimed at ending the practice.

READ MORE: How Canada is fighting child and forced marriages

Most countries have laws banning marriage before the age of 18, but those are often not implemented, Mabel said in an interview on The West Block with Tom Clark.

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“So what we would like to see is that these laws get implemented and that governments make national action plans,” she said. “And if you then talk about the alternatives that are out there, you see that, actually, the men and the boys in the community understand that it is better to end child marriage which is why I’m so hopeful that we could actually change this in one generation.”

Girls Not Brides has members from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North and South America, all bound by a commitment to end child marriage. While boys are also subjected to child marriage, a cause to which Canada recently committed $10 million, girls are disproportionally affected, according to the organization.

READ MORE: 5 myths & misconceptions regarding violence against children

Although Mabel worked on human rights and development issues for more than 15 years before joining the organization, she said she had no idea how widespread and awful the problem of child marriage was.

“We’re talking about 15 million girls getting married every year before they are 18,” she said. “That means one girl ever two seconds.”

Poverty, stunted development and child marriage create a vicious cycle in some communities, Mabel said.

READ MORE: Feds to ban ‘barbaric’ cultural practices

“We say, as a global community, that we want to bring every girl into school. But how can we ever achieve that if girls are pulled out of school in order to get married?” she said. “Or, we say we want to end maternal mortality, but how can you do that if girls are forced to get married and then have babies when they are themselves still children?”

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Keeping girls and young women in marriages rather than school — where children can learn skills to eventually become wage-earners while also becoming educated on the cycle of poverty — only serves to keep a country trapped in poverty, she said.

“If you actually make sure these girls stay out of marriage until they are 18 or even older, that they get proper education, that they are safe and secure, it will have a tremendous impact on the wellbeing of countries,” she said.