Look at this photo of smiling girls. They are all nine years old. They live in Ethiopia, and thanks to an ActionAid project they are at school rather than being forced to drop out to get married.
If you know any girls of this age in the UK you’ll be aware that their main priorities range from who their best friend is this week, will they be able to sing/dance/act like their latest famous idol, am I doing okay at school, is everyone I know in my world happy?
To most British nine-year-olds marriage involves love, happiness and most importantly (when you’re a grown up) choice. Marriage is something you decide to do, if and when, you want to - when you are ready. We want this to be the same all over the world, which is why we support whole-heartedly the UK government's Girl Summit this July.
Is early forced marriage the norm?
In many of the countries around the world where we work, child and early forced marriage is so embedded in many cultures and traditions that it is seen as the norm. Girls have little or no choice about who they are going to marry. In developing countries, one in nine girls are married before the age of 15. Shockingly, the average age of the groom to his child bride is up to nine years older.
Marrying young perpetuates the cycle of poverty
You may have heard about early forced marriage, but did you know that it’s poverty that also drives this custom? Or that the numbers of child marriage increases after natural disasters and emergencies?
Marrying young feeds into and perpetuates the cycle of poverty, powerlessness and gender inequality. When a girl misses out on education this contributes to the high rates of illiteracy amongst young women. Without the power of information they are more likely to experience violence, abuse and forced sexual relations. Child brides are five times more likely to die in childbirth.
Young women are literally saving each others' lives
Savelat, 17, pictured above in Pakistan was forced into marriage at eight.
She was beaten by her mother-in-law and drug addict husband on a regular basis. But fortunately she was able to escape and now she runs an ActionAid programme to educate other girls and women about the impact of early girl marriage.
She said: “I don’t want to see any other girl child of my village to face the curse of early marriage and I try my best to convince the parents that early marriage is a crime and it should be stopped.”
Pakistan recently outlawed child marriage in one province which is fantastic news. However, it's just one province. Standing against such abuses is what the Girl Summit is calling for globally – and we agree. Pledge your support for the Girl Summit here.
ActionAid also doesn't believe it's enough to just tackle early child marriage, either the harmful attitudes that surround it or gender inequality wherever they occur, otherwise violence in all its manifestations including female genital mutilation will continue.
We want to empower young women around the world and to enable girls everywhere to fulfil their potential.
Photo: Ghulam Zakaria Khan Nutkani.