SOUTH BURLINGTON, VT – Part of what makes Population Media Center (PMC) so compelling to so many supporters is that our work touches on such a myriad of important social, health, and environmental issues. For some, it’s our work on extinction of species and climate change that draws them in. For others, it’s our creative approach to promoting reproductive health and family planning. For Elton Sherwin, Executive Director of The Carbon Zero Institute and longtime donor to PMC, it’s an insidious problem in many cultures that is only recently starting to get some of the mainstream media attention and public outcry it deserves: child marriage.
“Each day, roughly 25,000 girls are forced into marriages around the world. Girls as young as eight are married, almost always to older men or older boys,” Elton reflects. “Girls are forced to have sex while they are still children and become pregnant before their bodies are fully developed. These pregnancies in a child’s body—children having children—cause miscarriages and a host of medical problems, leaving many girls incontinent for the rest of their lives. When their young bodies are damaged from delivering a child, some husbands then abandon their child wives and babies.”
Elton’s organization, Carbon Zero Institute, is a small non-governmental organization working to tackle a big issue that, at first glance, might not seem related: climate change. One of their projects is sustainably re-planting trees in deforested countries. “I started to see a pattern: the countries with the worst deforestation problems also had rapidly growing populations, usually driven by teen pregnancies. I became worried that this adolescent population ‘bubble’ would eventually cut down millions of trees to make charcoal.”
Indeed, girls who are married before age 18—estimated at 1 in 3 in the developing world, and 1 in 9 married before age 15—are far less likely to receive a complete education, will suffer from greater instances of physical and sexual abuse, have less knowledge of and autonomy over their reproductive health, and more unwanted children than women who are allowed to marry as adults. The practice of child marriage perpetuates a cycle of poor health and poverty that persists for generations.
Elton went on to describe how the issues of climate change and child marriage became intertwined for him: “The two things that happened to me were (1) connecting it to the environment, and (2) understanding that if women can prevent first pregnancy until after the teenage years, most of these problems go away. The kids stay in school longer, they grow up wealthier, the children are healthier when they are born to older parents, and society has a much greater chance of being able to provide both economic opportunities and food and medicine for its population.” Elton continues, “The dynamic of how children end up becoming parents is different in different countries, but the results of children having children are virtually universal: those babies have more health problems, the parents have more health problems, the families are going to be less well off than their peers.”
The causes and stories behind these tragedies vary by region. In some countries school girls are kidnapped and forced into marriage. In too many countries, young girls are raped on their way home from school or while carrying water and then forced to marry their attacker. For many more, it is simply a cultural tradition, seen as a way of ensuring a girl’s security and generating a bride price for families often in acute poverty. In most countries, all of these practices—kidnapping, rape, the sale of girls, and child marriages—are illegal. Yet governments have great difficulty changing these pernicious practices. Ending them often requires changing the attitudes and behaviors of many actors: government officials, village elders, grandparents, parents, teachers, and young people.
There is hope: In some villages, after hearing a PMC drama, the elders have come together and decided to stop the sale, rape, and early marriage of girls in their villages, often ending century-old practices. After PMC’s drama Ngelawu Nawet (“Winds of Hope”) aired in Senegal in 2008-2009, listeners were 6.3 times more likely than non-listeners to state that “the ideal age at marriage for a woman is 18 years and older.” A similar shift in attitudes was observed following the broadcast of the Nigerian drama Ruwan Dare (“Midnight Rain”), which aired to over 12 million listeners in 2007-2010. The cost of that program was just 8 cents per listener.
That cost effectiveness and scope of impact was what was attracted Elton to PMC. “Where others have spent far more and failed, PMC has many success stories. Sophisticated research—reinforced by thousands of letters from listeners—attests to the success that PMC serial dramas have in protecting girls,” he told us. “As a (former) venture capitalist, I look to identify technologies or approaches that are extraordinarily cost-effective. From a donor’s point of view, there’s almost nothing else that has as big a positive impact on the world’s climate and population as supporting PMC.”
ABOUT POPULATION MEDIA CENTER (PMC):
Population Media Center is a nonprofit, international nongovernmental organization, which strives to improve the health and well-being of people around the world through the use of entertainment-education strategies, like serialized dramas on radio and television, in which characters evolve into role models for the audience for positive behavior change. Founded in 1998, PMC has over 15 years of field experience using the Sabido methodology of behavior change communications, impacting more than 50 countries around the world. www.populationmedia.org
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