Child marriage is an act that never ceases to bury millions of young girls alive. Putting an end to this crime is more than a moral imperative. Child marriage does not only impact the life of that specific girl but also the future of the country itself. Marrying off girls at an early age gives rise to illiteracy and limits these girls’ economic aptitude. Not only this but it is also associated with an increase in sexual violence and abuse and with higher rates of maternal and infant mortality.
Today, more than 700 million women were married off before reaching their eighteenth birthday. Based on a research conducted by UNFPA in 2012, it is estimated that one-third of girls all over the globe get married before reaching the age of eighteen and one in nine before the age of fifteen. Child marriage is a threat for girls, it disrupts these girls’ educational and economic chances, exposes them to the dangers of sexual abuse, and even threatens their lives which systematically hamper development and progress. Once these girls get married they will automatically drop out of school and never complete their education which affects their economic potential.
These girls are the victims of their cultural norms and traditions, poverty, illiteracy, the low social status of women, and lack of opportunities. These girls do not even know what marriage is, their parents take the decision and they have no say in it. Kamla an Indian girl aged thirteen stated “When my parents mentioned marriage, I had no idea what ‘marriage’ even meant”
The main drivers of child marriage
In certain countries girls are considered as an economic burden, their families do not see them as potential wage earners. In order not to burden themselves with the cost of their daughters’ education and schooling, disadvantaged families decide to marry their girls off at an early age. In some cases, families marry off a daughter to remove debts or resolve feuds. In some parts of India for example, the groom’s family receives less money if the bride is younger. In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, prices and money given to the bride’s family increase the younger their daughter is. Based on research conducted by the World Bank, based on Demographic and Health Surveys data, demonstrates that girls with a wealthier background incline to marry at later ages. Therefore, poverty and economic survival fuel early marriage.
Cultural norms play an important role in the high percentages of child marriage. Child marriages take place frequently in patriarchal societies where fathers and elders play an important role in the marriage process and in picking spouses for their daughters. Girls are seen as baby-making commodities, they are married off as soon they reach puberty to maximize their childbearing potential.
Numerous cultures put an emphasis on girls’ virginity, which they tightly link to a family’s “honor”. Parents decide to marry off a daughter at an early age to make sure that she weds as a virgin. Religion also plays an important role in child marriages. In Ethiopia, for example, child marriage is deeply rooted in the customs of Orthodox Christian communities like those in the Amhara region.
Illiteracy and the lack of educational opportunities often limit girls’ aptitude; adding poverty to that, make child marriage a bitter reality. Nonetheless, even with the increase of accessibility to education and economic opportunities, relieving poverty, certain countries where religious and customary justifications for child marriage are intensely embedded will not see an end to child marriage without changes in social norms.
The toll of child marriage
A really important outcome of child marriage, and an abandoned one, is these girls’ mental health and well-being. These girls are pushed into adulthood without being neither emotionally nor physically ready for it. Child brides are anticipated to bear children right after marriage, which increases their susceptibility to pregnancy and childbirth complications. The World Health Organization reports that pregnancy complications is the main reason for death among girls aged fifteen to nineteen in low- and middle-income countries. These girls’ physical and emotional health, future, and economic prospects are all jeopardized when their families’ marry them off as children.
Illiteracy is both a cause and effect of early marriage. The shortage of educational opportunities influences girls’ early marriage, married girls are also likely to drop out of school sooner. This impacts their future opportunities, leaves girls jobless and financially dependent on their husbands. A study conducted by UNICEF showed that across forty-seven countries, girls with primary school education were less likely to be married than girls who had received no education. Another study held by the International Center for Research on Women found that girls with no education were up to six times more likely to marry as children than girls who had received secondary education.
This lack of education and economic opportunities do not only affect these girls individually but also hinders the development of their countries and communities. Child marriage destabilizes economic progress of the communities where child brides live and prolongs the poverty cycle in which so many under-developed countries find themselves trapped.
International legal conventions outlaw child marriage, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Yet, the weak enforceability of these conventions hinders international efforts to decrease child marriage rates. In many of the countries where child marriage is taking place, national laws ban the practice. But unfortunately, those laws are just words on paper with no enforcement measures.
What should be done
Promote girls’ education
In his message on the first International Day of the Girl Child, the UN secretary-general stated “Education for girls is one of the best strategies for protecting girls against child marriage. When they are able to stay in school and avoid being married early, girls can build a foundation for a better life for themselves and their families.” According to data from the World Bank, each additional year of education beyond the average boosts women’s wages 10 to 20 percent. Education can boost these girls’ livelihoods of getting a job and leading a successful life.
Access to education is critical to growing girls’ self-reliance and delaying the age of marriage. Schooling help girls acquire thinking and social skills, establish networks, and boost income-earning prospects. International organizations can collaborate with local change-makers to pressure governments to make primary and secondary schooling compulsory and aid girls’ families with school enrollment and financial assistance.
As mentioned above child marriage is often seen as a financial transaction for needy families. To boost their financial situations and address their needs families marry off their daughters at an early age. Development agencies and international non-governmental organizations can offer financial assistance or incentives to parents to urge them to delay their daughters’ marriages. Certain programs deliver direct cash assistance to needy families on the condition that they invest in their daughters’ educations or postpone their marriage until they reach the age of eighteen. One successful example is India’s Apni Beti Apna Dhan program, which provides bonds to newborn girls that can be redeemed only if they remain unmarried when they turn eighteen.
Expand maternal and reproductive health
Agencies and organizations can also provide assistance when it comes to married girls in need of sexual and reproductive health care. They can back local health advocates in assisting girls with maternal care, family planning, and sexual health education. These agencies can help with improving the quality of and access to maternal care for pregnant girls at risk of childbirth complications.
Strengthen the rule of law
Minimum-age marriage laws and their enforcement instruments should be introduced or reinforced to sustain a standard against child marriages.
Child marriage puts an end to several girls’ lives, it is never too late to tackle this issue. Empowered women empower their countries and as stated by UNICEF “Ending child marriage will help break the intergenerational cycle of poverty by allowing girls and women to participate more fully in society. Empowered and educated girls are better able to nourish and care for their children, leading to healthier, smaller families. When girls are allowed to be girls, everybody wins. »
United Nations Children’s Fund, Ending Child Marriage: Progress and prospects, UNICEF, New York, 2014.
Council on Foreign Relations, Child Marriage, New York 2014.
Council on Foreign Relations, Child Brides, Global Consequences: How To End Child Marriage, New York, 2014.
About the author:
Farah Kanbi born and raised in Tunisia and currently living in Italy. She holds a BA in International Relation, a MA in International Relations, and a MA in International Cooperation, Development, and Migration. She has always been passionate for human rights and giving voice for the voiceless. Farah is interested in human trafficking, migrations studies, refugees and stateless persons’ rights. She has an experience for women rights advocacy with CREDIF, Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women. She worked on several campaigns with CREDIF like calling for women participation in politics and local affairs, and gender-based violence in the public sphere. She is currently volunteering for Centro Astalli Palermo, working on accompanying, serving and defending the rights of refugees, from both North and Sub-Saharan Africa, who flee their homes and come to Italy asking for protection. She is also member of the youth-led initiative Politics4Her.