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World turning blind eye to 10 million child brides each year, charity warns

One girl below the age of 18 is married off every three seconds worldwide, according to a community development charity which is calling for the British government to help end child marriage.

Plan UK will publish a report this week entitled Breaking Vows which states that 10 million under 18s become child brides every year. In developing countries in South America, North Africa and parts of Asia, one in three under 18-year-olds, and one in seven of all girls under 15, are married.

Rates of early and forced marriage are also high in Europe, with the highest percentages in central and eastern Europe where 2.2 million girls have married before their 18th birthday. The highest rates are in Georgia (17%) and Turkey (14%). At least 10% of adolescents marry before the age of 18 in Britain and France which confirms, says Plan UK, that early marriage is of global concern. The UK governments Forced Marriage Unit received more than 1,700 calls from at-risk girls last year.

Allowing people to marry under the age of 18 is against UN conventions and the practice is outlawed in most countries but others are turning a blind eye, especially in poorer communities.

But the consequences for both the child and their future children are dire. It not only keeps them trapped in a cycle of poverty but creates health issues and even death – a girl of 15 is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in her 20s.

The children of young mothers are also at much greater risk. When a mother is under 18, her baby is 60% more likely to die before its first birthday than that of a baby born to a mother older than 19.

Those working in the poorest countries are pointing to child marriage as being the key development issue – not only because it is a breach of children's rights but also because of the serious health implications and the impact of forcing millions of girls to miss out on an education. Tackling child marriage successfully could affect everything from HIV prevalence to child mortality and gender inequality.

Researchers from Plan UK interviewed girls who had been married off from as young as 10, often to much older men. Madina, now 14, from Sudan, said: "I was forced to leave school in order to get married. I was divorced after eight months. I wish other girls don't suffer like me.''

Plan's chief executive in the UK, Marie Staunton, said child marriage is child abuse. "Marriage often spells the end of a girl's education. She's also less likely to send her own children to school perpetuating the poverty cycle. Why is the international community so silent when so many girls are forced to marry when they are still children?"

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