The UN Special Envoy on Global Education, Gordon Brown, yesterday launched the Worldwide Emergency Coalition for Education, calling for an end to child marriage, child labour, discrimination against girls and exclusion from education. It is to be welcomed that the indivisibility of these issues is recognised by the coalition, a point which Mr Brown discusses in an article for CNN – Drive to end child marriage stalls, but fight-back begins . Brown uses the space to draw attention to the Pakistan Islamic Council’s demand last month that Pakistan abolish all legal restrictions on child marriage, the increased pressure in many African countries to ease the restrictions on selling child brides, and the failed attempts in Yemen and Nigeria to enforce a legal minimum age for marriage. Three of these countries are in the Commonwealth, and Yemen could soon join.
The Commonwealth includes four of the top ten countries with the highest prevalence of early and forced marriage globally – Bangladesh, Mozambique, Malawi and Sierra Leone. Furthermore, India has the highest number of child brides in the world, with 47% of girls married before they reach 18 years old. The issue almost wholly affects girls: in Bangladesh, 65% of girls are married before the age of 18, with 29% married before the age of 15. Health and education are directly and adversely affected by early and forced marriage, with infant mortality rates double for mothers under 20 years old, and 58% lower for mothers with more than seven years of education. There is also direct correlation between early and forced marriage and poverty, with girls from poor families more than twice as likely to marry before they reach 18 years old.
Following the 2013 Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, it was stated that the Commonwealth ‘will continue to address the issue of child, early and forced marriage. All Commonwealth countries bar Tonga have signed the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which in Article 16 explicitly prohibits early and forced marriage. The Commonwealth Charter also recognises that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential components of human development and basic human rights,’ further arguing that ‘the advancement of women’s rights and the education of girls are critical preconditions for effective and sustainable development.