Those of you who have seen UNICEF's picture of the year will remember the expression of fear on 11-year old Ghulam's face as she gazes at her 40-year old fiance, Mohammad. The practice of child marriage continues unabated in various parts of the world including Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, India and the Middle East. The girls (often as young as 11 and sometimes even younger) are routinely married off as part of "arrangements" made by their family and usually without their consent. Unwanted girl children are often treated as second-class citizens and are denied access to basic education or even information concerning contraception. Despite being illegal in many countries, secret illegal weddings continue and have even been carried out in Western countries. In addition to issues of basic human rights such as forced sex, child brides face horrendous medical risks including increased risk of death from childbirth (early pregnancy is a leading cause of death for girls between the age of 15 to 19 in developing countries), anal and vaginal fistulas, domestic abuse, chronic anemia and obesity. The psychological trauma associated with these forced marriages can impact on their self-esteem and contribute to a pattern of lifelong poverty and early death.
Despite ongoing education programs to warn of the dangers of child marriage, the practice is proving notoriously difficult to root out. For too many girls like Ghulam, it may already be too late.