Initiatives to end child marriage are showing results in South and Southeast Asia but need to be urgently scaled up to protect tens of millions of girls, campaigners say.

A new regional study on the issue was launched this week by girls’ rights organization Plan International with the support of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency.

“Time to Act: Accelerating Efforts to Eliminate Child, Early and Forced Marriage in Asia” details effective moves that will help achieve the global goal to end child, early and forced marriage under the wider umbrella of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Youth advocates from across Asia gathered in Bangkok to help launch the study alongside senior diplomats, UN agencies, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the ASEAN Secretariat, international non-governmental organizations, lawmakers and regional think-tanks.

The young people shared experiences on how they have opposed child marriage while voicing demands for future generations of children and young people.

South and Southeast Asia continue to have significant levels of child, early and forced marriage.

Bangladesh, Cambodia, Afghanistan

Bangladesh is among the world’s highest with 52% of girls married by the age of 15, while in Cambodia 19% of girls are married or de facto relationships by the same age.

The practice is also widespread in Africa. Some 24 countries have launched national strategies to end the practice since the African Union began a campaign to stop child marriage by 2023.

Meanwhile, the UN last month said that severe drought in western Afghanistan, which has displaced more than 250,000 people, has worsened an already dire humanitarian situation, compelling some families to sell their daughters to pay off debt or buy food, AFP reported. At least 161 children between the ages of just one month and 16 were sold between July and October, according to Unicef.

And in September, the marriage of a 15-year-old Malaysian girl to a 44-year-old man sparked anger, two months after a girl aged just 11 was married off to a 41-year-old.

Teenage pregnancies

Adolescent and teenage pregnancies are also rising in Asia, with 43% of such pregnancies unintended, some occurring within marriage. Unintended adolescent pregnancies also fuel high rates of abortion in the region, much of it unsafe.

“We need to accelerate our efforts to end child, forced, and early marriage and to address the drivers of adolescent pregnancy” said Bjorn Andersson, UNFPA regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

“Achieving zero gender-based violence and harmful practices such as child marriage” was a UNFPA goal, he said. “We can do this by strengthening measures to protect and empower young girls, and by working together with all of society to address the root causes of child marriage, including gender inequality, vulnerability and poverty.”

Deep-rooted social norms around roles and values ascribed to girls contribute to early marriage while economic and systemic circumstances that drive families to force children to marry persist.

Girls’ health undermined

This undermines the integral health and well-being of girls, exposing them to violence, unwanted pregnancy and limiting their education and employment opportunities. The practice restricts the economic and social development of whole nations.

“Child, early and forced marriage is a harmful practice impacting the economic and social development of nations at large. With this report, we call for increased investments and accelerated action to ensure child marriage is a problem of the past,” Plan International’s Bhagyashri Dengle said. “It is a critical time to capitalize on the progress made, and step up the gains to ensure no girl is left behind.”

Comprehensive sexuality and health education, plus engagement of men and boys and empowerment of girls to ensure their choices are respected, were needed. Political will and enforced legislation were also critical to prevent child, early and forced marriage, they said, adding that young people should be free to choose who they marry.

Practice costs billions: WB

Globally, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18 each year. Plan estimated that more than 150 million girls would become child brides by 2030 if no action is taken.

According to a new World Bank report, more than a third of girls in sub-Saharan Africa marry before their 18th birthday, which costs countries billions of dollars in lost earnings.

Estimates for 12 countries suggest some US$63 billion is lost because child brides complete fewer years of formal education than their peers who marry later.

Every year of secondary education reduces the likelihood of marrying before the age of 18 by 5% or more, it added in the report “Educating Girls and Ending Child Marriage.”

– with reporting by Agence France-Presse