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Preventing Child Brides Is Goal on UN Day of Girl Child

As the United Nations today recognizes its first International Day of the Girl Child, a 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl activist who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen lies in critical condition.

Her crime: She wanted an education.

The struggle for life by Malala Yousufzai, the veiled teenage blogger who defied the Islamic extremists by secretly going to school, adds special poignancy to a day intended to highlight the challenges facing girls in many nations, such as educational restrictions and marriage as child brides.

“I think we should be dedicating our efforts to brave young women, some of whose names we will know and some we will never know, who struggle against tradition and culture and even outright hostility and sometimes violence to pursue their hopes, their God-given potential,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington yesterday.

One of those women is 23-year-old Salamatou Aghali Issoufa from Niger, who fought and won the right to continue her studies and, in so doing, escaped the fate of millions of women married as girls. About 70 million -- or around 1 in 3 -- young women age 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18, with 23 million of them betrothed before they turned 15, according to Unicef, the UN agency which helps children.

Rare Success Story

In contrast to the harsher realities of girls born into poor rural areas, hers is a rare success story which she is telling at the UN in New York.

Today Issoufa is happily married to a man of her choice, the mother of a four-year-old, with a baby on the way. She’s also her town’s midwife.

Her life could have been very different. Born in a country with the highest child marriage rates, Issoufa grew up in a village near an oasis in the Sahara desert that first allowed a girl to attend its primary school in 1989.

When she turned 16, her parents wanted to yank Issoufa out of high school, where she was a star pupil, and marry her to a man three times her age. To her disgust, he was also already married and had a child.

“I objected because I did not know him, and he was much older,” Issoufa said in an interview in French. “I did not like polygamy, either, and wanted to continue going to school.”

So she confided in her older brother, who was 24 at the time, and asked him to intercede on her behalf. In Niger and elsewhere in West Africa, it’s a traditional for parents to decide the future of their daughters.

Poverty, Customs

“Where I come from, there are several reasons for arranged marriages; there is poverty, the customs, the tightened ties, and early marriage is considered a way to safeguard a girl’s virginity,” Issoufa said.

Also championing her cause were members of the health support committee in her hometown of Timia, who offered her a scholarship to a three-year midwifery school program in Agadez, a six-hour drive away. She met her husband there while completing her studies. They since have moved back to Timia, where he works as a travel agent and she assists the town’s women during pregnancy, labor and delivery.

Her cousin, not so lucky, was married off at 16.

‘Viciously Cruel’

Ending child marriage is the focus of the first International Day of the Girl Child, an initiative supported by UN agencies, rights groups, foundations and governments.

Each day, about 37,000 girls under age 18 are forced into marriage, according to a report released today by the UN Population Fund. At that pace, there will be 14.2 million cases of child brides a year by 2020 and 15.1 million a year by 2030, the report said.

Nobel Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who leads a group of independent global leaders working for human rights, attended the presentation of the report and called the practice “viciously cruel.” Tutu was involved last year in forming the advocacy group Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of 200 organizations working to end child marriage.

In Washington White House press secretary Jay Carney, in a statement today, praised Yousufzai and said the U.S. is committed to a “vision of a world where our daughters enjoy the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as our sons.”

Reducing Child Marriage

Clinton announced yesterday that the U.S. will work with the government of Bangladesh, which has one of the highest rates of child marriage, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to seek to reduce the numbers through expanded heath care, education and legal rights. The U.S. will also include the issue in programs for foreign teachers coming to the U.S. for training, she said.

Separately, the Ford Foundation announced a five-year, $25 million program against child marriage. The UN Population Fund said it will invest $20 million over five years on programs for the “most marginalized adolescent girls” at risk of child marriage in 12 nations, including Niger, Guatemala, India, and Zambia.

About a third of women Issoufa’s age were married as children in the developing world, most commonly in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, Unicef said.

Child brides run a greater risk of domestic violence, have to abandon their studies and risk life-threatening pregnancies, according to Unicef. About 70,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 die each year of complications linked to pregnancy or childbirth, according to Unicef, and that in turn pushes up the number of babies who die before they’re a year old.

These sobering statistics are not lost on Issoufa, who on her first visit to New York has a simple message to share: “Give girls a chance to study.”

-- Editor: Terry Atlas, Ann Hughey.

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