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Raising Awareness for 12 million Girls on the International Day of the Girl Child

October 11, 2021

Julie Harb oversees and manages SCSC’s Common Threads program. She graduated with a Master’s in International Studies with a specialization in conflicts, cultures and peace from the University of Montréal in 2020. During her studies, she undertook a field research in Turkey, and developed a passion for the question of identity, belonging and nation building.

Every year since 2012, we have been celebrating the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11th. This day, established by the United Nations General Assembly, is dedicated to internationally recognizing the rights of girls including their right to a healthy life, a safe environment, and equal access to education. While today, we see many young girls raising their voice for change by demanding concrete actions to tackle issues like climate change and gender inequality, some of them are still facing deliberate marginalization, oppression and daily violations of their rights. For instance, child marriage is still a practice robbing millions of girls of their childhood in different regions of the world.

Child marriage is defined as a legal or customary union between two people of whom one or both spouses is below the age of 18. Additionally referred to as “forced” and “early” marriage, child marriage is recognized as a direct violation of human rights, especially since this act does not respect the full and free consent recognized in Article 16:2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While boys can also be subject to child marriage, this practice affects girls in far greater numbers and carries with it more severe risks for girls. In 2020, 21% of young women were married before their 18th birthday, and every year 12 million more girls under 18 are married (UNICEF, 2020).

Not only is this practice a violation of human rights , it also has devastating impacts on the lives of child brides. Married girls are forced to adopt adult roles and responsibilities at a young age, which can have detrimental effects on their physical and psychological well-being. Marriage at such an early age can also isolate girls from their familiar network of family, friends, and peers at school, which can make them more vulnerable to social isolation. It also often leads to higher drop out rates (Parsons et al. 2015). While causes for dropping out of school may vary depending on the cultural and socio-economic factors within a country, studies show that 10 to 30 percent of the girls dropping out of school may do so because of an early marriage or a pregnancy (World Bank 2017).

Moreover, the social isolation of child brides may limit their empowerment and the exercise of their freedom (Duflo 2011). This social isolation, as defined by Kim Samuel, is like “the feeling of sitting alone at the bottom of a well”. Child brides have little to no say in decisions about whether they should continue or return to school. This has a direct impact on literacy, the prospect of joining the labour market and subsequently on the productivity and the financial independence of girls (Malhotra et al. 2011; Vogelstein 2013).

The lack of education of child brides may be associated with the pressure from their in-laws, husbands and the society to become pregnant soon after marriage. However, pregnant young girls may experience higher maternal mortality and morbidity, stillbirth, miscarriage, stunting and abortion (Godha et al. 2013). In addition, unwanted pregnancies are very common in child marriages, especially given that girls are often scared to negotiate sexual activity with their husbands (Raj 2010; UNFPA 2013) and are unable to denounce the physical or emotional violence they experience at the hands of their husbands or in-laws within their own homes (Parsons et al. 2015).

Child marriage is still a common practice in the MENA region where nearly 40 million girls have been subjected to marriage before the age of 18  (UNICEF, 2018). Anthony Keedi, technical Advisor at ABAAD, a Resource Center for Gender Equality in Lebanon, noted that there are new challenges to achieving gender equality and protecting young girls. Between Lebanon’s economic crises, the port explosion and the impact of COVID-19, issues like gender equality and women’s rights are not being prioritized anymore. Since people’s focus in this country shifted to day-to-day survival, the number of families living under the poverty line is rapidly increasing in a short period of time. Based on a study with Oxfam in 2014, ABAAD found that the biggest driver for child marriage in Lebanon was financial; people and families who supported early childhood marriage or witnessed it happening in their families justified it by monetary needs. With the absence of recent data, Keedi affirms that this practice can only have increased amid the current economic situation where people are in a more critical financial situation than they were in 2014.

However, Keedi noted another main point encouraging this practice: the Lebanese system is highly patriarchal. Women and young girls have always been marginalized and unprotected by the law. For instance, until 2016, the article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code stipulated that the rapist who married his victim would not be prosecuted. This law legitimized rape against young girls and women in the name of honor preservation. For Keedi, child marriage, rape and other gender based violence crimes are still seen as “taboos” in Lebanon: “I don’t think culturally there’s been a shift, you still have the progressive and the non progressive, but because it’s tied in with our laws […] we haven’t necessarily taken steps forward, we might have taken two steps back in terms of the attention towards this.”

Finally, Lebanon has 15 separate personal status laws for its recognised religions, and the minimum legal age for marriage varies by religious confession as it is under the jurisdiction of personal status law. With the absence of civil code, many religious confessions are still approving marriage under the age of 18 (Table 1), making child marriage legally possible.

Table 1: Marriageable age by confession and sex, “Understanding the social processes underpinning child marriage: The impact of protracted displacement in Lebanon on Syrian refugees” (2020), Terre des Hommes, Lebanon

The case of Lebanon is one of many, where girls are once again victims of political and economical crisis, traditional legal barriers and cultural taboos. Despite all the struggles and obstacles, Anthony Keedi insisted on the fact that there’s still resiliency and hope, “I think the most positive note is that we’re still here and we’re not going anywhere, and we’re still fighting […] we need to keep women and girls always at the top of our voices and the forefront because they have been marginalized for far too long and we can’t continue have that happening, we can deal with national struggles but not at the expense of women and girls.”

Elif Sahafak’s novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World tells the story of Lelia, who was 16 years old when she escaped her childhood home after surviving a sexual assault and being forced to marry her cousin. Leila’s mother had once told her that “childhood was a big, blue wave that lifted you up, carried you forth and, just when you thought it would last forever, vanished from sight. You could neither run after it nor bring it back. But the wave, before it disappeared, left a gift behind – a conch shell on the shore. Inside the seashell were stored all the sounds of childhood.” Although Leila was able to escape home, all she carried in her conch shell were the echoes of her shattered dreams and the many memories of her sitting alone at the bottom of a well. Though Leila is a fictional character she unfortunately represents millions of girls in the Middle East and around the world. This day is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the importance of raising awareness on this topic so that the world may become a safer and better place for young girls.


Duflo, E. 2011. Women’s Empowerment and Economic Development. Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research

Godha D, Hotchkiss DR, Gage AJ. Association between child marriage and reproductive health outcomes service utilization: a multi-country study from South Asia. J Adolesc Health. 2013;52:552–8.

Jennifer Parsons, Jeffrey Edmeades, Aslihan Kes, Suzanne Petroni, Maggie Sexton & Quentin Wodon (2015) Economic Impacts of Child Marriage: A Review of the Literature, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 13:3, 12-22, DOI: 10.1080/15570274.2015.1075757

Malhotra, A., A. Warner, A. McGonagle, and S. Lee-Rife. 2011. Solutions to End Child Marriage What the Evidence Shows. Washington, DC: International Center for Research on Women.

Raj, A. 2010. “When the Mother is a Child: The Impact of Child Marriage on the Health and Human Rights of Girls.” Archives of Disease in Childhood 95 (11): 931–935. doi: 10.1136/adc.2009.178707

UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund). 2013. State of the World Population 2013: Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the Challenge of Adolescent Pregnancy. New York: UNFPA

UNICEF( (United Nations Children’s Fund). 2018. A profile of child marriage in the Middle East and North Africa. UNICEF Middle East and North Africa. 

UNICEF( (United Nations Children’s Fund). 2020. Child marriage around the world. 

Vogelstein, R. 2013. Ending Child Marriage: How Elevating the Status of Girls Advances U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives. New York: Council on Foreign Relations

World Bank Group. (2017) Economic Impacts of Child Marriage Washington, D.C. :