BY: AISHA ILYAD
Each year, 15 Million girls are married before the age of 18. That is 28 every minute. One every two Seconds.
As many as 7.84 million (65 per cent) of married children are female, reinforcing the fact that girls are significantly more disadvantaged; eight in 10 illiterate children who were married are also girls. Child marriage affects both boys and girls, though the overwhelming majority of those affected are girls, most of whom are in poor socioeconomic situations.
Child marriage is a formal marriage or informal union entered into by an individual before reaching the age of 18. The legally prescribed marriageable age in some jurisdictions is below 18 years, especially in the case of girls; and even when the age is set at 18 years, many jurisdictions permit earlier marriage with parental consent or in special circumstances, such as teenage pregnancy. In certain countries, even when the legal marriage age is 18, cultural traditions take priority over legislative law.
Child marriage is a global problem that cuts across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities. Child brides can be found in every region in the world, from the Middle East to Latin America, South Asia to Europe.
There has long been an assumption that child marriage is not an issue in western countries like Canada and the United States. And while it may be less visible – compared to places such as Africa, Asia and the Middle East – it certainly exists. According to the Human Rights Watch, most US states set 18 as the minimum age for marriage, however many states have exceptions that permit marriage much earlier with the consent of parents or a judge. In New York, between 2000 and 2010, 3,853 children under 18 married, with permission from parents, judges, or both. In the majority of cases, it was girls marrying adult men.
With more young people on our planet than ever before, child marriage is a huge human rights violation. For instance nearly 12 million Indian children were married before the age of 10 years – 84 per cent of them Hindu and 11 per cent Muslim, according to recently released census data. The data further reveals that 72 per cent of all Hindu girls married before 10 were in rural areas, as compared to 58.5 per cent Muslim girls, with higher levels of education correlating with later marriage.
The analysis also noted that the level of teenage pregnancy and motherhood is nine times higher among women with no education than among women with 12 or more years of education.
Child marriage is a traditional practice that in many places happens simply because it has happened for generations. In some communities, when girls start to menstruate, they become women in the eyes of the community. Marriage is therefore the next step towards giving a girl her status as a wife and mother. Other factors that promote and reinforce child marriage include poverty and economic survival strategies, gender inequality, sealing land or property deals or settling disputes, control over sexuality, protecting family honor, tradition and culture, and insecurity particularly during war, famine or epidemics. Other factors include family ties in which marriage is a means of consolidating powerful relations between families.
To have a look at the history of child marriage, in Greece, early marriage and motherhood for girls was encouraged. Even boys were expected to marry in their teens. With an average life expectancy between 40 and 45 years, early marriages and teenage motherhood were typical. In Ancient Rome, girls married above the age of 12 and boys above 14. In the Middle Ages, under English civil laws that were derived from Roman laws, marriages before the age of 16 were common. In Imperial China, child marriage was the norm.
What are the impacts of child marriage?
Underage married couples face huge challenges as a result of being married as children. Isolated, often with their freedom curtailed, both parties, but girls specifically, feel disempowered and are deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety. Neither physically, nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers, child brides are at greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, exposed to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS and suffering from domestic violence. Moreover, child marriage denies girls and boys the right to choose whom and when to marry – one of life’s most important decisions. Choosing one’s partner is an adult decision, one that should be made freely and without fear or coercion.
According to unfpa.org ending child marriage requires action at many levels. Existing laws against child marriage should be enforced, especially when girls at risk of child marriage, or who are already married, seek protection and justice. Governments, civil society and other partners must work together to ensure girls have access to education, health information and services, and life-skills training. Girls who are able to stay in school and remain healthy enjoy a broader range of options, and they are more likely to be able to avoid child marriage.
Recently, governments across the world – including the US – have committed to the United Nations sustainable development goals, according to HRW. These goals include a commitment that by 2030, every country will “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage.”