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CCEM child marriage report launchChild marriage has gained significant traction in the international community in recent years. It is now globally recognized as a harmful practice, a human rights violation, a development inhibitor, and a consequence and a cause of negative social norms. It is a priority area for action in the Commonwealth, with the Commonwealth Secretariat mandated to work towards ending the practice. Likewise, it has been the subject of resolutions in both the UN Human Rights Council and at the UN General Assembly. This progress is welcome, but significantly more must be done if we are to see real change on the ground.

The Royal Commonwealth Society and Plan UK have worked as partners towards ending child marriage in the Commonwealth since 2010. The launch of their latest report, Preventing Child Marriage in the Commonwealth: the Role of Education, took place at the 19th Commonwealth Conference of Education Ministers, and includes new statistics on child marriage prevalence in the Commonwealth, calculated from UNICEF data. 

In the Commonwealth, around 375 million women alive today were married or entered into union before their eighteenth birthday – over 16 per cent of the Commonwealth’s population, and 52 per cent of women over 18 years old. At current prevalence, 43 per cent of women in the Commonwealth are married before they reach 18 years old. This amounts to over 44 million 20-24 year-olds who were married as children. Approximately 8.8 million women in the Commonwealth are married as children annually, that’s 24,000 girls every day, 17 girls every minute, almost one girl every three seconds.

Education has proven to have a strong correlation with lower rates of child marriage, and for this reason the Commonwealth must prioritise achieving inclusive, quality education for all girls and boys. Commonwealth Education Ministries can do much more to keep girls in school, and to provide quality education that enables girls to develop the relevant skills and knowledge they need to actively and independently participate in social and economic life. Education Ministries can do this more effectively by working in collaboration with other Government Ministries, with other service providers, with families and communities, and with girls themselves. The Commonwealth can support this agenda, drawing upon its potential for shared learning and experiences, utilising its common institutions, platforms, networks and “south-south” approach of sharing to increase effectiveness.

If we do not prioritise girls, we do a disservice to the world. Educated girls have the power to lift themselves, their families and their generation out of poverty. Educated women are less likely to die in childbirth, and their children are more likely to be healthy. Educated mothers are also more likely to send their girls to school, breaking the cycle of poverty.

Ending child marriage makes sense. But it is imperative because not acting is to be complicit in the violation of girls’ human rights. We must work together to ensure that girls can grow up with the freedom to make decisions about their own futures, the space to be girls, and the right to an education.