For many individuals 2018 marks the start of a new year with a fresh outlook on life, plans to achieve their goals and dreams of new beginnings, but for some the harsh reality of marriage at an early age remains the inevitable dark truth in their lives.

2017 ended with Pakistani fashion designer Ali Xeeshan using his platform at HUM Pantene Bridal Couture Week to highlight the issue of forced marriage in Pakistan. Ali’s finale had a young, school-aged girl outfitted in a school uniform with bridal accessories walking the ramp. Adorned in the traditional jewels that for decades marked one as a bride and with mehndi (henna painted) hands, the image of this young girl was a shock to the system and was widely circulated across social media platforms. Displaying a bag full of books with ‘POWER’ embroidered on the back, the unique showstopper was meant to urge people to stand up for young girls’ rights and to encourage them to continue their education, protesting against the still common route of child marriage. Despite countless organisations and groups fighting to change laws regarding child marriage, the lack of development surrounding the issue has drawn attention to it and highlighted the need for change.

Pakistan’s Child Marriage Restraint Act sets the legal age of marriage as 16 for women and 18 for men but according to UN Women, it is still estimated that more than 20% of women are married off before the age of 18 and 3% overall do not even cross the age of 15 before they are married. There have been efforts to increase the legal age of marriage from 16 to 18 for women across the nation, which this has faced criticism and resistance. Jamshed Kazi, country representative for UN Women Pakistan raised a thought-provoking point when she stated:

It’s astounding how women aren’t allowed to drive or vote before the age of 18 and at the same time, they’re forced into this lifelong commitment way before they reach that age.

Jamshed Kazi, representative for UN Women Pakistan

The show was followed up by UN Women’s website directing people to head to The Bridal Uniform and sign a petition urging Pakistan’s parliament to push the issue and have the marriage age for women to be increased to 18.

We are reminded that child marriages continue to be a global epidemic with dire consequences for women, their families and entire communities. It leads to negative mental and physical health consequences for women and limits their decision-making ability and mobility, thereby reducing productivity and earnings. Child marriage results in greater risk of domestic violence and sexual abuse, as well as several health issues, lower educational attainment, and lower lifetime earnings.

If fashion with a cause proves to be successful, it sets a precedent for companies in other industries to stand up and partake in the movement, which will benefit the lives of many children in Pakistan and other developing countries. Change requires one individual to stand up and at the end of last year Ali Xeeshan and UN Women collaborated to do just that, to put child marriage in the spotlight so that they could use their moment to create a catalyst for change. Nevertheless, you don’t need to be a high profile celebrity to have an impact. Starting closer to home and eventually building up to Regional and International committees can also pave the way for progress. Child marriage cuts across borders, religions, cultures, and ethnicities and can be found all over the world. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that if current trends continue, 142 million girls worldwide will be married by 2020, where global partnership, Girls Not Brides, suggests that if there is no reduction in child marriage by 2050 the number of child brides will reach 1.2 billion.

Child brides have little say in when or whom they will marry, have little influence with their husbands and in-laws, have little opportunity to develop awareness of their rights and are in no position to claim or demand them. Several organisations play an important part in ending the child marriage movement and innovative programmes are building on the growing international concern and recognition of the costs of this harmful practice to girls, their families and communities in order to tackle the issue. The UNFPA has listed the below plan of action to get people thinking:
1. Empower girls by building their skills and enhancing their social assets
2. Improve girls’ access to quality formal education
3. Mobilize communities to transform detrimental social norms
4. Enhance the economic situation of girls and their families
5. Generate an enabling legal and policy environment

As a global issue of vast importance what are your views on eradicating this problem and how can you as a parent, business owner, entrepreneur or a student in the UK help these young girls in developing countries from being stripped of their human rights?