As a girl in school, I loved Valentine’s Day. I’d make a card, with a boy, my best friend, my mum, or my grandparents in mind, and pop the question: “Will you be my valentine?”
As an adult, Valentine’s Day is a popular and romantic moment to ask an even bigger question, one with implications and consequences meant to last a lifetime: “My valentine, will you marry me?”
At any age, what these sweet rituals share is the freedom to think of one’s beloved, and the autonomy to choose them.
But on 14 February, about 37,000 girls will have their bodily integrity and sexual autonomy shattered. They won’t be valentines. They will be child brides. They won’t have sweethearts. Many will have adult rapists. They won’t have girlish dreams of romance; they will have perpetual hellish trauma. Their risk won’t be that the one on whom they have a crush chooses another; their lives will be overshadowed by risks like obstetric fistula, leaving them incontinent, among the other perils of teen pregnancy and sexual violence.
Child marriage is a mass abuse of human rights. It undercuts global development. If a girl stays in school longer, her future earnings can increase dramatically. For each additional year a young woman spends in school, the age at which she will have her first child will be delayed by six to 10 months. Child marriage debilitates and isolates her. Being a child bride dramatically increases her risk of facing death or injury. In fact, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death among adolescent girls aged 15 to 19. The adolescent wife is ill-equipped to care, emotionally and financially, for her children who do survive. Some things, love alone cannot overcome.
Let’s share our outrage. Let’s make sure we see that girl, listen closely for her voiceless voice, picture her life of domestic slavery, her traumatic separation from her family and friends, and the dangers that dog her daily life. She will probably be routinely beaten, rapedand demeaned, neither able to access healthcare or educationnor attain any economic, political, and social status. And it’s called marriage.
Not very romantic, is it?
Child marriage is both a cause and a consequence of poverty and gender inequality. More than 700 million people still live in extreme poverty on less than $1.9 (£1.31) a day. Can you imagine trying to feed, provide healthcare for, and educate children on so little? In the desperation of not being able to plan and space births – 225 million women still lack access to modern family planning – selling or trading girls to men can seem a practical solution. It can also be a desperate, choiceless choice: take the loss, and retain a tiny bit more money, food and time to dedicate to your remaining kids. Of course, the widespread preference for sons, and the fact that girls and women are regarded as sources of cheap labour and little more than the sum of their reproductive parts, justifies this human sacrifice.
Child marriage grimly sows the seed for perpetuating poverty, physical and mental injuries and shattered hearts.
Alternatively, girls could be driving poverty reduction by being educated; by becoming economic actors, drivers of development who contribute to the welfare of their families and societies. Girls in school over time add much more to their country’s GDP.
Our leaders have agreed that we need to end poverty and fight inequality, and that championing our girls and women is essential to advancing humanity’s common dream of a better world. Most countries have banned marriage for people under 18, and recognise the benefits of having equal numbers of girls and boys in school, university and the workplace. However, in too many places, laws are simply not being enforced. Therefore, impunity must also end, and girls that speak up, and those that can’t, must have justice.
As we think about our valentine – a sweetheart, your own children, a secret crush – let’s think about the thousands of girls on this day, and every other day, who chose neither sweetheart nor spouse, for whom their place of rest is instead a torture chamber.
Let’s make our love letter this year a cri de coeur that demands social justice, bodily integrity and sexual autonomy for girls, so they may become empowered adults who chose when, and whom, to marry.
Ashley Judd is a humanitarian, writer and actor. This article was written with the support of the United Nations Population Fund