As Director of Women Thrive’s Alliance for Women’s Solutions, I do my best to keep up on the conversations happening in Washington and elsewhere about the best arguments for advancing gender equality. One I hear so often is that gender equality just makes sense for economic growth.
Yes! This is absolutely true. The data shows that. But how about we start talking about gender equality as more than just good for the bottom line?
Earlier this week, I attended an event at the World Bank that looked at the economic impacts of child marriage. A team of high-level researchers from both the World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women presented results from the first phase of their joint research project, during which they looked at existing data to identify trends on the economic impact and costs that child marriage has for countries.
Child marriage continues to plague countries around the world: one-third of girls living in our world are married before they turn 18, and one-third of them before they turn 15. Girls are pulled out of school in order to marry men who much older than they are. Sexual intercourse starts before they are physically or mentally ready, and this harmful practice means children are themselves having children.
There is a growing body of evidence on the social and economic impacts of child marriage, and the World Bank—among others— believes that bringing an economic argument to the table will make a huge difference in ending this practice. Their research is an effort to create strong evidence that can then be used by governments, advocates, and activists to change laws and attitudes around child marriage.
The data presented at the event this week was mind-blowing. When you put a dollar amount to the social cost of child marriage, it puts a lot into perspective. The impacts are huge because child marriage impacts fertility and population growth, health, nutrition, violence, education attainment, investments, and so much more.
If child marriage was eradicated, countries would save billions of dollars. Niger, for example, would gain $19 billion between now and 2030 if it ended child marriage inside its borders.
Yet there is a part of me that feels ill-at-ease with these economic arguments. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome any new evidence that can contribute to fighting the practice of marrying off young girls. As Claudia Costin from the World Bank said, “child marriage forces girls into womanhood and motherhood before they are emotionally and physically prepared.”
Any argument that can be used to help shape new laws and attitudes is worth taking. But in my opinion, the economic argument shouldn’t take center stage in the overall debate, as often happens.
As advocates for women’s and girls’ rights, we ground our arguments in a girl’s right to be protected from marriage, rape, and forced reproduction. Shouldn’t the primary argument be what’s good for the girl?
It is important to see child marriage as what it is: an absence of rights, rather than an economic problem alone. And while we are trying to convince governments to make laws that change the legal age for marriage, our central message should be that it is intolerable that in 2015, girls as young as eight years old are expected to take on the role of wife and mother.
The economic argument for gender equality has been extremely valuable, and I know I’ll continue to use it. But it shouldn’t be used as the be-all and end-all argument. We should all use it hand-in-hand with what is at the core of our humanity: the rights of women and girls to live a life free of violence, abuse, and restraints.