Thank you, teachers. And one more thing.

October 5, 2017 — On World Teachers’ Day, we recognize the irreplaceable value that educators bring to children’s lives, helping to lay the foundations of independent, learned, healthy, and fulfilled lives. Even a primary education can mean the difference between a life of opportunity and a life of subservience.

But one particular injustice is the reason that tens of millions of girls are missing from classrooms around the world.

Where are these particular girls?  Deemed too immature, by law, to be hired for jobs in the formal sector, to drive a car or rent an apartment, they are nevertheless allowed to be conscripted into illegal “marriages” while their governments look the other way. Hidden from view in the homes of men posing as their legitimate spouses, these girls cook, wash, clean, and do any other work demanded of them, around the clock, 365 days a year. They are robbed of control over their bodies, their lives, and their futures.

Whether consciously or cluelessly, their captors are all breaking the law, subjecting girls below the age of majority in their countries to daily human rights abuses, including repeated rape. Deprived of schooling and cut off from friends and family in their formative years, young “brides” struggle without support systems, life skills and, in most cases, awareness that they have rights — and that those rights are being violated. Some girls who become “wives” as children survive to live long lives of grinding servitude. Others die young, exposed by their so-called husbands to perilous pregnancies and a sky-high risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections such as HIV. They are trapped in lives of degrading, debilitating work in the households of others.   

And the UN agency mandated to deal with “the world of work” is hiding these girls from our view.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the unique tripartite agency of the United Nations in which governments, the private sector, and unions work in concert for better laws and decent conditions in the world of work. The ILO sets standards and collects global statistics, including the numbers of children involved in work that only adults should do. Confoundingly, the ILO’s latest numbers say that there are 17 million more boys than girls involved in hazardous work.

That skewed statistic flows from the deeply flawed conviction that girls who are married do not really "work." A bogus ceremony that confines a child to a man’s home as his “wife” is enough, in the eyes of the ILO, to reclassify her work as mere “household chores” instead of forced labour. It doesn’t matter to the ILO that it’s not her household — that by law, she should not be there at all. It doesn’t matter that she performs manual labour and sex acts day and night in a “third-party household” — nor that the labour performed by other children in third-party households is regulated by the ILO, and it is considered part of the ‘world of work.’ For the ILO, an unlawful wedding ceremony is enough to magically transform noxious child labour into benign ‘household chores’, and eliminate any trace of those millions of girls from the global statistics of children in crisis.

The International Labour Organization operates the world’s largest global program to eliminate child labour. What could possibly justify the experts’ decision to eliminate girls in illegal “marriages” from the statistics, and therefore from any benefits of the global program?

This isn’t just about words and data and designations. When vulnerable young “married” girls are hidden from child labour statistics, so are the adults who abuse and exploit them.

These girls, like all children, have the right to be in school. One hundred ninety-two governments have agreed by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child. And as teachers know better than anyone, girls need to be in school. On World Teachers’ Day, educators richly deserve our recognition and gratitude for everything they give to their students. We hope that teachers will spare yet another moment for the “married” girls who are missing from classrooms: Teachers, please tell the ILO: Child marriage IS child labour.

Please show your support by signing a letter to the ILO and forward the link to a teacher you know, along with AIDS-Free World’s appreciation.