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- Created on Friday, 09 March 2012 15:33
Former prime minister proposes global fund for education to reduce poverty and illiteracy for girls
Child marriage is a one-way ticket to a life of poverty, illiteracy and powerlessness for girls and the international community needs to take urgent action to stop it, says former prime minister Gordon Brown in a powerful analysis published on Friday .
Brown's review, seen exclusively by the Guardian, says that the issue of child brides has been "conspicuous by its absence" in the efforts to cut global poverty, bring down child and maternal death rates and get children into school, which are stated millennium development goals to be achieved by 2015.
Child marriage holds back the achievement of all these targets, yet it "has remained hidden in the shadows", he writes. Brown proposes a new global fund for education, similar to the existing global fund for Aids, TB and malaria, to support government programmes to help keep young girls and other marginalised children in school.
Ten million girls under the age of 18 are married every year. In a new estimate, Brown, who has made education in developing countries a campaigning cause since leaving office in May 2010, says that 1.5 million of them are under the age of 15. West Africa has the highest incidence of child marriage – in Niger, 36% of girls are married by the age of 15 – but populous India, with 45% of under-18s married, has the highest number of child brides.
Their education and prospects in life are stunted and their health imperilled by early pregnancy, which risks their death and that of their baby, says the report. Brown calculates that the lives of 166,000 infants could be saved if their child mothers could delay birth until after age 20.
Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the largest killer of girls aged 15 to 19, accounting for 70,000 deaths a year. Girls of that age are twice as likely to die as those who give birth over 20.
The report tells tragic stories of the agonising deaths of 13-year-old girls in labour. It is a human rights scandal, says Brown. "Coerced into lives of servile isolation and scarred by the trauma of early pregnancy, child brides are the victims of widespread and systematic human rights violations," he writes. "They represent a vast lost generation of children. And it is time to put their protection squarely on the international development agenda."
He argues that keeping girls in school will keep them out of early marriage. Brown says he has "been greatly concerned over the slow pace of progress towards the millennium development goal target of decent quality, basic education for all of the world's children by 2015". A decade ago, the numbers going to school and staying there rose sharply, but the early pace of change has not continued.
"It has really slowed down dramatically over the past few years," said Kevin Watkins, of the Brookings Institution in New York, who helped research the report. "Our thinking is that once you get beyond a certain point, the nature of the game changes.
"You are down to the children who are out of school because their family is so poor that they have to work, or they are an HIV orphan or a child bride."
It is harder to help young girls in some places because of the complex mix of beliefs and deprivation that cause their families to think education is not a worthwhile option. Poor families that struggle with the costs of books and uniforms might prefer to keep their daughter working in the fields or at home, on the assumption that they will not benefit from her education long term, as she will move to her husband's house after marriage. They may also want or need the "bride price" she will bring on her marriage. Poverty is critical: drought in Kenya resulted in a surge in child marriage, the report notes.
But change is possible, says Brown. He cites a successful programme in Ethiopia, which included "community conversations" with elders, adult female mentors for young girls and financial incentives to the family if a girl stayed in education. Bangladesh has provided stipends to 2.3 million girls conditional on staying in school, remaining unmarried and passing exams.
"Let me be clear at the outset, there are no simple solutions," says Brown. "Passing laws is not enough." But strategies such as cutting school fees, supporting girls financially and building classrooms close to communities in rural areas can help get girls past the "tipping point" of 13 or 14, where they leave school for marriage.
To support this, the international community must find more money. Brown talks of "chronic under-financing of aid to basic education", which, at $3bn (£1.9bn) a year, is only a fifth of what is needed to reach the millennium development goal target. He calls for an international summit on child marriage and reform of the international aid architecture to create a global fund capable of mobilising necessary resources, building partnerships and galvanising action.
'Out of wedlock, into school'
Former prime minister Gordon Brown's hard-hitting report on child brides, urging more action to keep young girls in school and out of marriage, is being quietly released in New York today.
"Out of wedlock, into school: combating child marriage through education" is one of a series of papers being published to support Gordon and Sarah Brown's campaign for education across the developing world.
In spite of its robust analysis and call for international action, including the launch of a global fund for education, there will be no fanfare. Brown's first report of the series came out in May 2011, just a year after he left office, and days after Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned as head of the International Monetary Fund following his arrest in New York over sexual assault allegations, which were later dropped. Brown's press conference to launch his report in Johannesburg was hijacked by journalists wanting to know if it represented the former prime minister's pitch for Strauss-Kahn's job. No, said Brown, it was not.
Since he left Downing Street with his family in May 2010, Brown has kept a low profile. He and Sarah Brown, who is a prominent campaigner against maternal mortality and patron of the White Ribbon Alliance, prefer to make their official statements on their own website, gordonandsarahbrown.com.