The Herald and World Vision are working together to save girls in Asia from prostitution, child labour and marriage against their will. Get a free VR viewer for a virtual reality film about a child bride's life or to donate to the campaign go to World Vision's Not for Sale

Millions of girls in Asia are being married off as young as 12, trafficked into sex work or forced into back-breaking labour. And New Zealanders are being given an opportunity to help to save them.

Today, the Herald and World Vision are launching Not for Sale, a campaign that aims to transform the lives of children facing exploitation in Asia by sharing and highlighting their stories. It includes a virtual reality film telling the story of a reluctant child bride through the eyes of her friend.

The figures on child exploitation are stark.

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There are 152 million children in work around the world. Around 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year - one every two seconds. And 1.2 million children are trafficked every year.

The focus of Not for Safe is on a handful of Asian countries with the highest rates of exploitation, and where World Vision already has a presence - Myanmar, India, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Nepal.

Nearly 70 per cent of girls in one of India's poorest regions marry before age 18, often for economic reasons. Photo / Mike Scott
Nearly 70 per cent of girls in one of India's poorest regions marry before age 18, often for economic reasons. Photo / Mike Scott

"With the scale of the problem, we can't do everything," said World Vision New Zealand national director Grant Bayldon.

"But we can make a huge difference for the girls in the communities we work with. We know that we have the ability to change thousands of lives."

Exploitation is driven by various and complex factors, including harmful traditions, gender inequality, poverty and weak legal protections. These issues are worsened by natural disasters, conflict, and displacement.

But, though the causes are complex, the result is the same. The exploitation affects girls' health, interrupts their education, and prevents them from reaching their potential.

As part of the Not for Sale campaign, Herald on Sunday columnist and Newstalk ZB host Kerre McIvor travelled to the Bihar region in India and Yangon in Myanmar to speak to vulnerable children and their families.

While child marriage rates are falling globally, Bihar remains in the past. Nearly 70 per cent of girls in the region are married before their 18th birthday – far higher than the national average of 27 per cent.

Prabha, 19, was married at 16 in an arranged union. The legal age for marriage in India is 18. Photo / Mike Scott
Prabha, 19, was married at 16 in an arranged union. The legal age for marriage in India is 18. Photo / Mike Scott

Among them is Prabha, from the Bihar village of Muzaffarpur, who was married against her wishes at 16. Her father forced the marriage in the hope that the husband, a factory worker, would provide money to support their desperately poor family.

Prabha, who sees her older husband just twice a year, is now fighting for her three sisters to be able to marry later in life: "They should study and become doctors and not get married until about 20," she said.

Girls in early marriages are at greater risk of maternal death. Early pregnancy is the leading cause of death among 15 to 19 year-olds in developing countries. And a child who drops out of school at 12 earns 60 per cent less over their lifetime compared to a child who completes high school.

McIvor heard more hopeful stories. At age 12, a girl named Sania successfully stopped her 14 year-old friend Munni from being married off to a man from Rajasthan, by appealing to a local community group which was trying to combat sexist attitudes.

"My mother and father taught me to be bold – to front up to every situation I face," Sania said.

The province of Bihar is one of India's poorest with high levels of deprivation and poorly educated citizens. Photo / Mike Scott
The province of Bihar is one of India's poorest with high levels of deprivation and poorly educated citizens. Photo / Mike Scott

Bayldon said there was growing awareness of the problems associated with child marriage in these countries - partly because of education work by World Vision.

"It's amazing to see how much of a difference interventions can make. Most people want to do the right thing. They want to see children and their communities looked after.

"And what we're doing is helping them to have the tools to make sure that happens."

With the money raised from the campaign, World Vision wants to work with local and government officials, teachers, parents, and police to advocate for an end to exploitation, highlight it when it occurs, hold responsible people to account, and work with survivors.

CHILD EXPLOITATION

• 152 million children in child labour around the world
• 1.2 million children trafficked each year worldwide
• 6 per cent of women marriged before age 15
• 15 million girls married before age 18 each year
• India alone has more than 10 million children in work
• 27 per cent of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday - despite the legal marriage age of 18

To donate to the Not for Sale campaign go to World Vision