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Q&A with Suzanne Petroni: Ending Child Marriage

  • Frances Alonzo

FILE - Uoung Pakistani girl Saneeda, who escaped a forced marriage under a local custom of Swara, speaks to a journalist in the Madyan valley of Swat, in the country's northwest.

FILE - Uoung Pakistani girl Saneeda, who escaped a forced marriage under a local custom of Swara, speaks to a journalist in the Madyan valley of Swat, in the country's northwest.

Earlier this month, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced "child-marriage free zones" to be established in Pakistan. The UN special envoy on global education said the move is part of a global effort to end the practice, and will try to keep Pakistani girls in school.

Child marriage is widespread in Pakistan. In March, the Pakistan Islamic Council demanded that the country abolish all legal restrictions on child marriage. Fortunately, there is a stronger movement from girls themselves. Girls are banding together to refuse to be married off.

Suzanne Petroni, a Senior Director of Gender, Population and Development at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), told VOA's France Alonzo that there is a movement inside Pakistan working at the government level to end the practice of marrying off young girls too soon.

PETRONI: Child marriage is a problem that has been recognized by the global community, including by Pakistan, as one that needs to be eradicated. Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Right of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and a number of other international agreements that essentially outlaw child marriage.

Religion is all too often used an excuse to perpetuate this harmful practice. Child marriage is practiced worldwide and [especially in] a number of countries. There are currently some 70 million girls under the age of 18 who are married, and so my hope is that governments will recognize that this is a harmful practice and they need to continue efforts to eradicate it, and that they have made many commitments to get rid of this violation of human rights.

ALONZO: What about other nations in the region, other Muslim countries in the region. How do you think [is] the ripple effect it might have in their countries?

PETRONI: Bangladesh has [a] child marriage prevalence rate more than twice as high as Pakistan. And their country has laws in place and policies intended to try to eradicate the practice. So there are examples of countries where religious leaders and governments have come together, recognized the harms that child marriage perpetuates and have agreed to try to end it. And you see countries that improved their economic development and their educational status for girls and have lower rates of child marriage and these are very highly correlated.

Girls who stay in school are less likely to be married, are less likely to be pregnant early and are more likely to contribute to the economy of their country. Many countries around the world, no matter their religion, have recognized this and are making efforts to enhance the equality of girls in their communities, the education for girls to stop child marriage.

ALONZO: What actually creates the change for governments and local entities to stop child marriage? What works?

PETRONI: In terms of what works at the community level, educating the girls and their parents, and community members about the harms of child marriage and about the alternatives; that is, valuing girls in those communities can help to raise from the community level on up awareness about the need to end child marriage.

Another practice that we have seen through the evidence we’ve looked at is empowering girls themselves with information and with skills and with support networks to really ensure that they have a support network, that they’re equipped to understand the world and their options and that those girls themselves can act for themselves, advocate for themselves.

And then finally, economic support and incentives for girls and their families to stay unmarried. In many cases, girls are married off by their families due to poverty. The family may not feel that they can feed another mouth and so for them giving the girl to another family and to marriage relieves that burden on them. In some cases you still see dowry and bride price actually brings cash or a cow or a chicken to the family in exchange for the daughter.

There is unfortunately no magic solution here that applies across communities, across the world. We believe that child marriage can end in one generation. The solution really is value the girl, give girls greater opportunities to become educated, to engage in their community and societies, improve gender equality broadly and find ways to tackle the poverty that is leading many of the families to move their girls into a marriage.