Unequal gender norms limit a girl’s ability to make decisions that affect her social, economic, and physical wellbeing.  As the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence ends on International Human Rights Day, I’d like to reflect on a form of gender-based violence that is often overlooked: child marriage.  For more than 58 million women around the world, their disempowerment begins with this harmful cultural practice.

For the past 15 years, I’ve worked in the field of gender and international development. During that time, my work has focused on the relations between women’s empowerment, gender dynamics, and reproductive health.  My motivation for focusing on these links is not only professional; it is indeed very personal. My Peruvian grandmother was married when she was 16 years old. She was pregnant 14 times (10 children; 2 miscarriages; 1 stillbirth; and 1 infant death). My mother was her oldest child; I was her first grandchild.

I adored mi abuelita and greatly admired her strength; she became a widow at age 42 when her youngest child was 3 years old, took over the family photography business, and became the matriarch and axis of the family. But she suffered from poor health for many years, and passed away when I was 16.

Growing up, I heard many stories about her married life. Her husband was at least 15 years older; he had a daughter almost her age from an earlier relationship, which caused countless family conflicts over economic resources. I never knew my grandfather, but I knew that he drank a lot, was unfaithful, and often abusive—not physically, but in emotional and economic ways. When my grandmother tried to separate from him, he refused to give her any child support, which led to her infant’s death from malnutrition.

The sense of injustice I felt listening to these stories transferred over to my dedication to these issues; the more I learned about these intersections, the more I understood that my grandmother’s story is not a unique story. Gender-based violence, in all its forms, is a global phenomenon.

At USAID’s Office of Population and Reproductive Health, we address the relations between gender and reproductive health, including child marriage, through programs that aim to empower girls/women, constructively engage boys/men as partners, and promote gender equality in a variety of cultural contexts. And I am proud to be part of these efforts.

November 29th was my grandmother’s birthday, and I honor her memory by continuing to work to change the gender realities that propel so many girls into child marriage.  I hope to continue to help raise global awareness about the ways in which child marriage is a violation of girls’ rights to social, economic, and reproductive empowerment, health, and well-being.