Discussions of child brides are often couched in gentle language and talk of culture and tradition. The reality is much harsher than that. The fact is that 70,000 child brides die every year due to complications of pregnancy or childbirth. Because their bodies are not fully matured, girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die during childbirth than women in their twenties.
The children of young mothers are also at risk. Babies born to mothers younger than 18 have a 60 percent chance of dying in the first year of life than babies born to older mothers.
Despite studies documenting physical abuse and high death rates, the practice of early and forced marriage continues. In some countries, like Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea, Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Nepal, more than 50 percent of all girls are married before their 18th birthday.
It has always been done…it's cultural…it's in the name of religion…it's financially necessary… These are just some of the justifications for continuing the practice. It's hard to accept this reasoning when you take the time to learn individual stories of child brides.
• In 2009, a 12-year-old child bride in Yemen died after suffering through three days of labour to give birth. Her baby also died.
• In 2010, a 13-year-old girl in Yemen died of internal injuries just days after she was the child bride to a man almost twice her age. The hospital reported that her genitals were torn and caused extreme blood loss.
These are just two of the haunting stories of young girls who are dying every day because they are given away in marriage.
In some countries, child brides as young as six years old are married off to older men. Even in countries where laws prohibit child marriage, enforcement remains lax and a culture of secrecy allows the number of cases to grow.
In Yemen, a quarter of all girls are married before age 15 and half of all girls are married before their 18th birthday. A United Nations statistic reveals that Yemen's maternal death rate is 430 women per 100,000 births. That's 20 times more than the neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
According to UNICEF, most of the maternal deaths are through early pregnancy. In addition to their tender age and immature bodies, most girls in Yemen give birth at home rather than in a hospital or other medical facility.
Compounding the problem is that most child brides are denied education. They remain completely dependent on their husbands and their husbands' families, unable to fend for themselves or seek the help they so desperately need.
Things are beginning to change, but legal progress is painfully slow. In 2008, ten-year-old Yemeni bride Nujood Ali had the courage to walk into court to ask for a divorce from her abusive husband. The divorce was granted in this high profile case, but such decisions are all too rare.
Even when granted a divorce, life for a former child bride is not easy. A 2009 follow-up report by CNN found that, "based on the principles of Shariah law, her husband was compensated, not prosecuted. Nujood was ordered to pay him more than $200 — a huge amount in a country where the United Nations Development Programme says 15.7 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day."