Child marriage poses a massive threat to children’s rights all over the world. The tradition of early marriage in Africa and Asia has violated millions of children’s rights. In developing countries one in three girls are married before the age of 18. Child marriage affects more than simply the right to marry, it affects a child’s right to education, to be free from violence, health and more.
The threat of child marriage is not limited to developing countries however. If child marriage does not regularly occur in a country it does not mean that children are protected against it. Only this year did the state of New York legislate against child marriage.
Child marriage is widely legislated against but with poor enforcement rates in developing countries, where child marriage is most prominent, means that it still occurs frequently. Child marriage ends a girl’s childhood and has a serious impact on their future prospects. In this post I will discuss the most important facts about child marriage and the steps being taken to eradicate this practice.
Child marriage occurs in a wide variety of countries around the world, either based on tradition, poverty or gender inequality. The practice behind child marriage differs but the consequences are the same. The human rights violations resulting from child marriage are wide and long lasting.
The greatest number of child marriage occurs in Niger where 76% of girls under the age of 18 are married (of which 28% are under 15). Poverty is the driving force in Niger. Early marriage to a wealthier partner brings with it hopes of economic prosperity. The poverty stricken life being experienced is the driving force behind child marriage.
In India approximately 47% of girls are married before their 18th birthday. India has the highest number of child brides in the world. There are a number of driving forces behind child marriage in India. One of them being poverty as girls are seen as an economic burden on the family. Early marriage transfers responsibility to the new husband. In many areas the caste system and gender inequality results in girls being seen as daughters, wives and mothers. They are the property of their father and then of their husband. The stigma placed on female sexuality is also another driving force. Early marriage limits the dishonour of female sexuality as the girl ages.
There are a wide range of social issues that leads to child marriage. The human rights violations, however, remain the same across the world.
Human Rights Violations
Right to marry
The right to marry is a well accepted universal right, acknowledged and respected by almost every country in the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 reads
Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of intending spouse
Child marriage threatens the values of marriage. The freedom of choice of marriage is well respected yet child marriage threatens the very nature of this right. It is estimated that 15 million girls marry every year before they reach the age of 18 (that amounts to 28 girls every minute). Approximately 700 million women alive today were married under the age of 18.
Right to Health
The major threat to health caused by early marriage is complications caused by child pregnancies. A baby is 50% more likely to be still born or die within the first few weeks of life if it is born to a mother under the age of 20. Complications caused by child pregnancy is the number one cause of death among children between the age of 15-19 globally.
Girls married at a young age are often forced into sexual activity by their spouse and are almost always unaware of their reproductive rights and health. Every day in developing countries 20,000 girls under the age of 18 give birth.
Childhood pregnancy, under the age of 18, is dangerous to both mother and child. A child’s body is not yet developed enough to cope with child birth. Child birth becomes extremely dangerous, putting both mother and child at risk. Child pregnancy also results in high levels of pregnancy related injuries among young girls.
Right to Education
The right to education is one of the most important human rights recognized. Education is seen as the best way out of poverty and gives a child brighter future prospects. 60% of women without education today were married before the age of 18. Girls without access to education are three times more likely to get married as a child.
Girls who marry are more likely to drop out of formal education to focus on being a wife, or as a result of removal to her husband’s home. Following marriage, pregnant girls are less likely to attend formal education. Some schools even prohibit the attendance of pregnant girls.
Lack of formal education open to girls often results in child marriage being the best option for their future. The girl would be cared for by her husband, instead of pursuing her own interests and further education. Poor access to education is a leading cause of child marriage and an unfortunate consequence.
Freedom from Violence
In Bangladesh a child bride is 47 times more likely to be subjected to partner violence. in Ethiopia 81% of child brides described sexual violence from their partner. Domestic violence is considerably higher among child brides.
In areas of conflict or frequent violence parents often choose child marriage as a way to ensure the safety of their child. During times of conflict child marriage increases greatly.
Child marriage can result in physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Most girls report their first sexual experience as forced following a child marriage. The psychological impact of child marriage can be significant on the mental development of the child. Domestic violence results in many psychological illnesses and can lead to depression.
The threat of domestic violence is significant among child brides and can result in a life of fear and servitude rather than a marriage.
Ending Child Marriage
Child marriage has been widely legislated against across the globe. The practice has a lot of history and is widely carried out. The tradition will take more than legislation to end. A social change is required with commitment from governments and international cooperation.
The use of child marriage to escape poverty and violence cannot simply be rebutted. Governments need to make education far more accessible and open to girls in developing countries. Education will enable girls to resist traditional values and learn about their rights. Society’s value of women and girls, and the contribution they can make to society, must also be adjusted to reflect gender equality and individual identity.
Girls not brides have developed a Theory of Change (which can be viewed here Theory of Change). The theory encompasses suggestions from organisations around the world working to end child marriage. The goal is to put an end to child marriage through community awareness, empowerment of girls and implementation of laws and policy.
Child marriage poses a real threat to the lives of girls around the world. Marriage under 18 virtually always results in the end of education, and early motherhood. A child is a child, no matter where they live, and deserve to have their rights protected from violations.
Many laws have been passed to end child marriage but poor enforcement is a serious problem. Child marriages frequently occur in rural villages and towns where the law is not upheld due to tradition. Lack of interest in preserving the rights of girls is also a contributing factor to the lack of enforcement.
Child marriage is first and foremost a common practice, practiced throughout history. Many families continue the practice due to tradition. This tradition needs to be broken. The only viable way to do so is through education. Educate the girls, their families, the whole community. Girls cannot assert their human rights if they do not know that they exist. Human rights awareness is one of the most powerful tools we have. The knowledge of rights gives an invaluable power that cannot be underestimated.
The end of child marriage will not be achieved quickly. Societal values must change to ensure its end, which will take time, patience and a lot of perseverance. Protection of children is so important, and so undervalued. Children cannot assert their rights alone, they need help and we need to help them.
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