Kate Stence is the communications manager of Knowledge for Health. As a writer and endurance athlete, her writing and running support females worldwide in achieving gender equity.

In late July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the stage to speak at “Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development.” A joint effort of USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Government of Norway, Grand Challenges Canada, and the World Bank, the event called on the brightest researchers around the world to identify and scale up transformative prevention and treatment approaches for pregnant women and newborns in rural, low-resource settings around the time of birth.

Clinton relayed how great the opportunity was to internationalize efforts and bring change through innovation. “We want to do development more effectively. That is our goal. We want to change systems. We want to deliver highest possible impact for every tax payer dollar we spend,” she said.

According to Clinton, few challenges are as persistent or heartbreaking as the poor health of many women and children around the world. She cited WHO’s calculation that 2.6 million children are stillborn each year and that a woman living in Sub-Saharan Africa is 136 times more likely to die during childbirth than women elsewhere in the world.

Like so many development issues, saving lives at birth has strong ties to the health and safety of the mother. For example, Trustlaw.org is currently featuring child marriage with a focus on how greatly it influences maternal and child health, both directly and indirectly. “Children of child brides are also at risk. Babies born to mothers younger than 18 are more likely to be underweight or stillborn. Girls forced into early marriage are also at an increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases [infections] and HIV/AIDS because they are unlikely to be able to negotiate safe sex with their husbands.”

According to PBS, child brides can be as young as 5 or 6 when they enter marriages, often with much older men. In April 2011, Who Speaks for Me? Ending Child Marriage was released by the Population Reference Bureau, further clarifying how vast this problem is on a global scale.

In the last decade, 58 million young women in developing countries — one in three — have been married before the age of 18, many against their will and in violation of international laws and conventions on women’s rights. Even more disturbing, according to new figures, one in nine girls, or 15 million, has been forced into marriage between the ages of 10 and 14. With limited education and economic opportunities, child brides are often condemned to a life of poverty, social isolation, and powerlessness, infringing on their human rights, health, and well-being.

 In the coming years, the number of child brides will increase drastically. As such, the Elders, a group of global leaders ranging from Nelson Mandela to Mary Robinson, introduced an initiative to bring more awareness. They state, “Every single day, it is estimated that more than 25,000 girls under the age of 18 are married. At this rate, 100 million more girls — around 10 million each year — will become child brides over the next decade.”

In June, National Geographic documented why whole cultures continue to abide by child marriage as cultural tradition. The article opened in India on the night of a wedding for three girls.

They squatted side by side on the dirt, a crowd of village women holding sari cloth around them as a makeshift curtain, and poured soapy water from a metal pan over their heads. Two of the brides, the sisters Radha and Gora, were 15 and 13, old enough to understand what was happening. The third, their niece Rajani, was 5. She wore a pink T-shirt with a butterfly design on the shoulder. A grown-up helped her pull it off to bathe.

In the story’s outcome, journalist Cynthia Gorney spent her own money to educate an 8-year-old child bride from Northern India so she could access education post-high school. Months after Shobha Choudhary began school, Cynthia received a video of the young girl thriving while living in a safe house for girls and continuing her education. “She looked straight into the camera at one point, and in English, an enormous smile on her face, she said, ‘Nothing is impossible, Cynthia Mam. Everything is possible.’”

Shobha’s story is one of hope but hers is also rare. Yet, the report Paying the Price: The Economic Cost of Failing to Educate Girls highlights why education will lead countries toward economic vitality. “Based on World Bank research and economic data and UNESCO education statistics, it estimates the economic cost to 65 low and middle income and transitional countries of failing to educate girls to the same standard as boys as a staggering US$92 billion each year. This is just less than the US$103 billion annual overseas development aid budget of the developed world.”

You can learn more about gender equality through the IGWG Gender and Health Toolkit and on the Interagency Gender Working Group web site.

 

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