This is home to about 600 people. A single, open shelter erected in a field. Two pit latrines hastily built by the side of a road. A polluted stream as the only source of water for drinking, washing and cooking.

Some 400 children fled here with their families last month, when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake devastated their homes in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. But they haven’t escaped from danger yet.
“This morning we buried a three-year-old girl.”
She had been suffering from acute watery diarrhoea — an increasing threat to the children living here with no access to sanitation.

13-year-old Sonamoni’s wedding day

Early marriage is not just a bad wedding day. It can mean a lifetime of danger and disadvantage. 

Sonamoni’s wedding day was one of her last days of freedom. Standing at the altar in her village in Bangladesh, she knew she was about to leave the comfort and support of her family. She would be pulled out of school, forced to abandon her dreams and pressured into having a baby at just 13 years old, before her body was ready. “I spent three months in hospital after childbirth due to bleeding,” she says.

When she was just 13, an early marriage shaped the path of Sonamoni’s entire life. © UNICEF/UNI146728/Kiron

Sonamoni wasn’t old enough to have a baby - not physically and not emotionally - but she barely had a choice. She’s now a mother and wife when she deserves to be at school, laughing with friends and building the future she wants.

Sonamoni’s story is shockingly common. An estimated 650 million women alive today were married as children, making them more likely to:

  • Leave school early and without graduating;
  • Be abused by their partners;
  • Give birth before they turn 18;
  • Suffer complications during pregnancy; and
  • Experience and continue intergenerational poverty.
If we let girls grow up safe, go to school and choose for themselves, the world would be a different place: women would have the education and freedom to lift themselves out of poverty, fewer girls would die giving birth and their babies would be healthier and more likely to survive childhood. When girls are allowed to be girls, everybody wins.

What is UNICEF doing to stop child marriage?

UNICEF works in 190 countries around the world, protecting the most vulnerable children from dangers like child marriage, forced labour and deadly disease.
  • In Chad, we helped run a nationwide campaign to change attitudes about child marriage, and supported the legislation to make the practice illegal. 
  • In Bangladesh, we’re funding local youth groups to talk to vulnerable girls about child marriage and teach them their rights.
  • In Laos, we’re helping young victims of sexual violence to access justice.
  • In low-income communities, we’re giving families cash transfers so they can afford to send their daughters to school.
  • Around the world, we’re working with governments to strengthen and enforce laws that establish 18 as the minimum age for marriage. 
With the help of her local adolescent group, Shampa was able to convince her parents early marriage was a bad idea. © UNICEF/UN016313/Gilbertson VII Photo

When 14-year-old Shampa’s family told her she had to get married, she enlisted the support of a local ‘adolescent club’. They sprang into action, arriving at her parents’ doorstep to discuss the risks of early marriage, to highlight the education Shampa would be missing out on and to remind them that child marriage is illegal in Bangladesh. It worked: Shampa’s family dropped their plans to force her marriage and she’s determined to stay in school and become a banker one day.

We can’t stop now

Every time a child marriage is prevented another girl gets the chance to fulfill her potential. But we still have so far to go. 12 million girls still will be married this year. The world has pledged to end child marriage by 2030 and if we’re going to achieve that Global Goal we’ll need to accelerate our progress even more.

Stopping child marriage is possible. We can replicate the success we’ve seen in Ethiopia and India - where child marriage rates have dropped 20 and 50 per cent respectively in the last ten years. Rwanda has brought the prevalence of child marriage below 10 per cent. Even though extreme population growth makes progress difficult, the number of child brides is beginning to decrease in countries like Egypt and Bangladesh.

UNICEF and our partners know exactly what to do - we just need your help to reach every child in danger. That’s why we have a special community of UNICEF supporters called Global Parents who help us keep children safe from dangers like child marriage, preventable disease and natural disaster. From right here in Australia, they’re reaching children in Chad, Syria and wherever children are in danger around the world.

Each new Global Parent helps us go further, work faster and keep more children safe. Sign up today to help protect children from early marriage, labour and exploitation, and to deliver life-saving water, health and nutrition supplies wherever the need is greatest.