Greeta Rao Gupta’s grandmother was pulled out of school in southern India at the age of 12 to be married, and over the next two decades she gave birth to 11 babies, only five of whom survived.
Her grandmother was so weakened by the multiple pregnancies and grief from losing so many babies that she died herself at the age of 33 of tuberculosis, said Gupta, who is deputy executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Gupta was on hand Tuesday to kick off a program run by UNICEF and the U.N. Population Fund aimed at ending child marriages around the world by 2030.
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Gupta said the story of her grandmother who died in 1930 made it a personal issue for her.
“Here we are 85 years later and we are still talking about girls getting married as children,” she said.
The program targets girls age 10 to 19 who are at risk of being married off or who are already married in 12 countries, including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nepal and Yemen. The countries were chosen based on several criteria, including a high rate of child marriage.
Officials say the issue is urgent. If current trends persist, up to 280 million girls alive today could become child brides before they turn 18 years old, according to the U.N. agencies.
More than 700 million girls and women alive now were married as children, the agencies say.
“Just think where those women and girls would be today if they were allowed to have a childhood,” Gupta said.
Agency officials say the program will work to help girls at risk of child marriage to make their own decisions about their futures, strengthen programs that deliver services to adolescent girls, and put into place laws and policies that protect adolescent girls’ rights.
Ending child marriage is part of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women’s efforts to achieve gender equality by 2013.