Of all the harmful practices reported by UNFPA, the most widespread is early and forced marriage, which every year endangers the rights and the future of 12 million girls. The data reported by UNFPA indicate that despite child marriages are banned almost everywhere, they occur 33,000 every day, in every part of the world. It is estimated that today there are 650 million women and girls who have married as children and by 2030 another 150 million will be added.
Progress has been made in slowing the spread of this practice, but due to population growth the absolute number of girls who suffer it is increasing.
The cost, incalculable from the point of view of the individual offended lives and often devastated by the consequences of early marriages, was measured from the economic point of view: according to the World bank – reads the Report – in only 12 of the countries where the practice is more widespread, the loss of human capital is equivalent to 63 billion dollars between 2017 and 2030, much more than what the same countries have received through aid to official development (Wodon et al., 2018).
The consequences of early marriages include early school leaving, health problems often related to pregnancy and childbirth, gender-based violence threatened and perpetratedsocial exclusion leading to depression and sometimes suicide; limitation of freedom of movement; heavy domestic responsibilities. Early marriage often costs girls’ lives, considering that complications related to pregnancy or childbirth are the leading cause of death for teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19, worldwide (WHO, 2018a)
The girls most affected are those belonging to lower income groups and in rural contexts, and the fact that they have less chance of going to school is at the same time consequence and cause of early marriages, which are the result of choices made by families in relation to poverty and the relative economic advantage that derives from giving up the daughter in a context of matrimonial traditions that contemplate “the price of the bride“.
Infant marriages, in fact, increase in contexts deprived of resources, such as those affected by natural disasters and conflicts, or by the consequences of climate change. Examples come from yemen, where today 65% of girls get married before they turn 18, while it was 50% before the start of the conflict. Or from Tanzania, where the economic difficulties caused by the alternation of droughts, floods and storms, push more families in rural communities to surrender their child daughters to brides.
Another widespread abusive practice is female genital mutilation practiced on girls, described by UNFPA as gender-approved violence by society, an integral part of a patriarchal system that sanctions male power over women (although the act itself is usually performed by older women). The fact that this practice is banned in most countries where it is in use is not enough to eliminate it because it is part of a set of transmitted and shared representations, based on stereotypes regarding female sexuality according to which mutilation would protect women from sexuality itself by subjecting it to men’s control. This practice is referred to as “The result of patriarchal power structures that legitimize the need to control women’s lives, a concept that stems from the stereotyped perception of women as the main custodians of sexual morality, but at the same time victims of uncontrolled sexual impulses. ”
The figure quantified in 2020 by theUNFPA it’s about 200 million women and girls who have undergone some form of genital mutilation in 31 countries around the world, including western countries, and 4.1 million women and girls who are at risk of suffering them. The fact that more and more often the procedure is medicalized and carried out in a sterile environment does not protect women from the consequences on their health, both physical and mental. Again, the legal ban is not sufficient to hinder the spread of the practice, which in particular persists the poorest families in rural contexts.
The list of harmful practices is long, and also includes antenatal selection based on gender, based on gender bias. In the past 50 years the number of missing women has more than doubled or almost 1.2 million missing females each year.
However, UNFPA also highlights the positive changes, giving voice to the women and men who, starting from their own experiences, have chosen to act to change the context. The new generations are the most sensitive and effective in promoting the abandonment of harmful practices within the community. Much more than their parents have access to information about their rights and the consequences of these practices, and they have more possibilities to enter into peer communication and ask for support. The data cited in the report are encouraging: “More and more evidence attests that the new generations reject gender stereotypes and preference for the male child, in China and elsewhere (WHO, 2011). In countries with a high incidence of female genital mutilation, adolescents are more prone, than older women, to reject this practice with an opposition that in some countries exceeds 50% (UNICEF, 2020) “.
Over the past 25 years, that is, since the first UN International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, it has also been possible to develop strategies to encourage cultural change in which local social actors are protagonists.
However, economic investments are needed. The austerity policies imposed by international programs translate into cuts in services useful to contrast harmful practices on women and girls, while according to estimates reported by Natalia Kanem, undersecretary general and executive director of UNFPA, with an average of $ 3.4 billion a year well spent, from 2020 until 2030 inclusive, the suffering of 84 million girls could be prevented.