Child Brides – And Why I Support PMC

Part of what makes Population Media Center (PMC) so compelling to so many supporters is that our work impacts a myriad of important social, health, and environmental issues—and at a scale that allows for entire communities to change. Adjusting social norms creates peer pressure that promises a better chance of long-term behavior and attitude change.

For Elton Sherwin, Executive Director of The Carbon Zero Institute and longtime donor to PMC, it’s imperative that PMC continue to work on 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 to child marriage: climate change. One of their projects is sustainably replanting 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 have 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, as well as perpetuating many associated environmental challenges.

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.”

Really impacting something as difficult as child marriage or as massive as deforestation requires an approach that changes entire communities. 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.

The causes and stories behind child marriage 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.

“The dynamic of how children end up becoming parents is different in different countries, but the results of children having children are virtually universal,” says Elton, “those babies have more health problems, the parents have more health problems, the families are going to be less well off than their peers.”

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