Walking home from school through the dusty streets of Sa’ana, Yemen’s capital, Nujood Ali had no idea how her life was about to change. She was nine years old and loved going to school, drawing with colored pencils, and playing marbles with her best friend during recess. But when she arrived home that day in February 2008, her father had a startling announcement: “Nujood, you are about to be married.”1
Child marriage was common in Yemen, a poor Middle Eastern country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Nujood’s mother had married her father when she was 16, and one in three girls married before the age of 18.2 But Nujood was bewildered by her father’s news because she was only in the second grade.
Nujood’s family was poor and often didn’t have enough to eat. Her father had struggled to find work, and when a man proposed to marry Nujood, the bride-price he offered—US$750—was too tempting for her parents to refuse. One night, Nujood overheard her father telling her older sister, “You know we haven’t enough money to feed the whole family. So this will mean one less mouth.” Her father made the man promise that he wouldn’t touch Nujood until she was older, and without Nujood’s knowledge, he signed the marriage contract.
Barely two weeks later, Nujood was married to a man three times her age. The ceremony was brief, but to Nujood, it seemed endless. After the wedding, her new husband took her to his home village, hours away from her parents. Despite his promise to her father, he raped her on the first night under his family’s roof. She cried for help, but no one responded. “I realized that nothing would ever be the same again,” she said.3
Every day, about forty-seven thousand girls marry before the age of 18.4 For girls like Nujood, marriage means the end of schooling, heightened risk of domestic violence, and possibly pregnancy before their young bodies are ready. With less education and fewer economic opportunities, these child brides are more likely to live in poverty than other girls.
Well into the twenty-first century, childhood remains rife with peril. Around the world, 168 million children toil in child labor.5 Sixty-one million primary-aged children do not go to school.6 In most countries at war, schools are attacked and children are recruited to fight as soldiers. Every year, over half of the world’s children—1 billion—experience violence,7 including 3 million girls who may be subjected to female genital mutilation/cutting.8
The cruel irony of children’s lives is that the same qualities that should elicit protection from harm—their young age and vulnerability—frequently make them targets for exploitation. They are forced to marry or enter the labor force instead of attending school, recruited as cannon fodder in the midst of conflict, manipulated into the commercial sex trade, and bear the brunt of adult violence. Too young to vote, they typically have little access to policymakers or political influence.
The abuses children suffer are unconscionable, yet remarkable change for the better is both possible and already taking place.
Compared to twenty-five years ago, children generally are much better off. Those born today are nearly twice as likely to make it to their fifth birthday. Since 2000, the number of children exploited in child labor has dropped by nearly one-third—from 255 million to 168 million9—and more than 110 million more children are in school.10 Girls are nearly one-third less likely to be subject to female genital mutilation than they were three decades ago11 and less likely to become child brides.12 The number of conflicts where children are fighting as soldiers has dropped by more than one-third since the early 1990s, and in some countries, the use of child soldiers has ended entirely.13
This book takes you on a journey across continents to meet the extraordinary activists who are transforming children’s lives. These individuals and their organizations show that far-reaching change is possible. The strategies they use show how it can be done.
You will discover trailblazing organizations that have used community dialogue to prompt thousands of villages across Africa to voluntarily abandon the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting. You will meet the woman who helped reduce the number of children in South Africa’s prisons by nearly 80 percent and the campaigners who secured pledges from the world’s largest chocolate companies to eliminate child labor from their products. You will meet activists working to end attacks on schools and to ensure that every child receives a good education.
Some of these dynamic individuals are children themselves, including Chernor Bah, who mobilized other children after Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war to win their right to free education, and Basu Rai, who literally marched from one side of the globe to the other to press governments to commit to end the worst forms of child labor. Nujood Ali, whose story opened this book, found the courage at age 10 to seek out a judge and demand a divorce. She is now part of a global campaign that aims to end child marriage in a single generation.
Advancing the rights of children is a moral and human rights imperative as well as an extraordinary investment in society’s future. Expanding children’s access to education, for example, is one of the most powerful investments that countries can make. The United Nations estimates that if all children in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.14 Providing a child with just one year of extra education beyond the average is estimated to increase his or her eventual wages by 10 percent.15 Children who are in school enjoy better health, better job prospects, and higher earnings as adults, and they are less likely to end up in child labor or child marriage or as child soldiers.
Similarly, ending violence against children has enormous payoffs for society. Economists have found that civil wars cost the global economy approximately US$170 billion annually, but that violence against children, primarily in the home, costs a staggering US$3.6 trillion.16 Every $1 spent to end violence against children—for simple interventions such as home visitation programs—can save $14 over the long term, in medical and other treatment, child welfare costs, and lower future earnings.17
Despite a global consensus that children have fundamental rights and overwhelming evidence that investments in children have profound and long-lasting benefits, governments often fail to prioritize children. Providing every child in the world a quality education through secondary school would cost an additional US$39 billion per year18—just 2 percent of annual military expenditures19—yet efforts to achieve education for all face significant funding gaps. Governments show callous disregard for the lives of children by failing to enforce laws, refusing to hold perpetrators of abuses against children accountable, and neglecting the policies needed to help children thrive.
One of the most important lessons of the past is that change does not happen without the mobilization of concerned individuals, organizations, and even children themselves. Persistent and creative advocacy and campaigning by civil society have changed societal norms, contributed to a growing body of children’s rights law, and forced governments and other entities to take concrete action to protect children and advance their rights.
Throughout most of history, children were regarded primarily as property, not as individuals with rights of their own, including the right to dignity, to protection from exploitation and abuse, to speak out, and to shape their own lives. Today the concept of children’s rights has grown from a little-known idea to a body of international law embraced by virtually every country in the world. Experience and research have substantially increased our knowledge about the initiatives that enhance children’s lives and prospects and those that don’t. Thousands of civil society organizations now lead programs and advocacy to protect children from exploitation and abuse, improve their well-being, and hold governments accountable for their legal commitments.
This book has a dual purpose: it assesses the state of children’s rights today, including the magnitude and severity of the violations that children endure and the impact of those abuses on their daily lives; and it examines the initiatives that have improved the lives of countless children—in particular, the vibrant civil society campaigns that have sparked action and had remarkable impact.
This book is meant to be simultaneously sobering and hopeful. The cases presented here give insight into the strategies and tactics that are helping to shape the children’s rights movement and make a difference in children’s lives. Not all have succeeded. Predictably, many efforts have encountered obstacles and setbacks. Both the successes and the failures can teach us about how transformation happens.
Change for children is possible. My hope is that this book will help policymakers make smarter policy decisions, enable advocates to strengthen their efforts to advance children’s rights, and inspire others to join efforts to expand children’s opportunities and help them thrive.
1. Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui, I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced (New York: Broadway Books, 2010).
2. UNICEF, State of the World’s Children 2015 (New York: UNICEF, November 2014), 88, http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/SOWC_2015_Summary_and_Tables.pdf.
3. Ali and Minoui, I Am Nujood.
4. UNFPA, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), State of World Population 2016 (New York: UNFPA, 2016), 72, http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/sowp/downloads/The_State_of_World_Population_2016_-_English.pdf.
5. International Labour Office, Making Progress against Child Labour: Global Estimates and Trends 2000–2012 (Geneva: ILO, 2013), vii–viii.
6. UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), “Leaving No One Behind: How Far on the Way to Universal Primary and Secondary Education?” (policy paper 27/fact sheet 37, July 2016), http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs37-leaving-no-one-behind-how-far-on-the-way-to-universal-primary-and-secondary-education-2016-en.pdf.
7. UNICEF, Hidden in Plain Sight: A Statistical Analysis of Violence against Children (New York: UNICEF, 2014), 96.
8. World Health Organization, “Female Genital Mutilation” (fact sheet, February 2016), http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/.
9. International Labour Office, Making Progress against Child Labour.
10. UIS, “Leaving No One Behind.”
11. According to UNICEF, the percentage of girls aged 15 to 19 who had undergone FGM/C in the thirty countries where it is practiced dropped from 51 percent in 1985 to 37 percent in 2016. See UNICEF, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern (New York: UNICEF, 2016), http://www.unicef.org/media/files/FGMC_2016_brochure_final_UNICEF_SPREAD(2).pdf.
12. According to UNICEF, one in four young women alive in 2014 were likely to have married during childhood. In the 1980s, the proportion was one in three. See UNICEF, Ending Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects (New York: UNICEF, 2014), http://www.unicef.org/media/files/Child_Marriage_Report_7_17_LR..pdf.
13. See Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Child Soldiers Global Report 2001 (London: Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2001) and United Nations, “Report of the Secretary-General to the UN Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict,” S/2016/360, April 20, 2016.
14. UNESCO, “Education Is the Key to Lasting Development,” 2011, http://www.unesco.org/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/ED/GMR/pdf/gmr2010/MDG2010_Facts_and_Figures_EN.pdf.
16. Anke Hoeffler and James Fearon, Conflict and Violence Assessment Paper: Benefits and Costs of the Conflict and Violence Targets for the Post-2015 Development Agenda (Lowell, MA: Copenhagen Consensus Center, August 2014), 16, http://www.copenhagenconsensus.com/sites/default/files/conflict_assessment_-_hoeffler_and_fearon_0.pdf.
17. Ibid., 39.
18. Global Partnership for Education, Financing for Education (fact sheet, 2016), http://www.globalpartnership.org/content/financing-education-factsheet.
19. Global military expenditures in 2015 were approximately US$1,676 billion. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 2016: Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security Summary (Stockholm: SIPRI, 2016), 17, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/YB16-Summary-ENG.pdf.