A recent BBC Radio report described the life of a young Indian woman. At 12 years old, she was married off to a man almost triple her age, for the price of £40. She became pregnant less than a year later. Today, she has nine children and works in the fields to support the family. She said she hates her situation but is resigned to her fate; she could never run away.
Then the husband spoke: his reason for buying and marrying a child was because there were too many men and not enough women where they lived. The most disturbing part of the report was at the end, when the man said that he would also have to buy some girls for his sons. And so the cycle of human rights abuse continues.
An international problem
Child marriage, as defined by UNICEF, is a formal marriage or informal union before the age of 18. Both genders are subjected to this, but girls are the most affected. We hear and read horrifying stories: a 10-year-old marrying a 50-year-old widower; a child as young as five, sent to live with her new husband and in-laws; a young girl showing up in a courthouse to request a divorce; and numerous cases of underage wives dying during childbirth or even as a result of marital rape.
None of these are limited by geography, religion, or any other factor. Nor are they exclusive to developing nations; some US states conditionally allow children younger than 15 to get married. Despite being illegal in many of the countries where it occurs, the practice still flourishes. I live in Mozambique, which has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. The legal marrying age here is 18, but there is no legislation to criminalise early marriage.
According to Girls Not Brides, there are some frightening numbers concerning child marriages: over 700 million women alive today were married as children; one in three girls in the developing world are married before 18; and every year, at least 15 million female minors are married. Niger is at the top of the list for the child marriage rate; however, India has the highest number of child brides. Married adolescents are most prevalent in South Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and West and Central Africa.
An archaic practice
There are several complex and interlinked reasons for why child marriage still occurs. Tradition is a significant factor: it’s a practice that’s been in place for many generations, and so certain groups are fixed on the idea. To make things more complicated, the very people who are responsible for protecting children – parents and relatives – are the ones who force this act upon them. Furthermore, it is often supported by the communities they live in, which is why nothing gets reported.
Another problem is gender inequality: daughters are not valued as much as sons and are considered burdens; boys are given priority when it comes to education; and the idea of girls choosing their own partner, or being old and unmarried, is unacceptable. Some fathers claim that by marrying their daughters off, they are protecting them from physical or sexual assault; and some do it to prevent pre-marital sex. Worse still is when girls are raped or abducted, then forced to marry their rapists to cover up the ‘shame’.
Poverty is also a fundamental motivation for early marriages. Parents with many children sell their daughters to ease their expenses or to pay off a debt. Sometimes the marriage is a business transaction that serves to settle feuds and disputes, or unite two families.
Child marriage directly conflicts with 6 of the 8 Millennium Development Goals, particularly: promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; and improve maternal health. It truly robs children of their childhoods; instead of being able to play outside, they have to work and look after the home. Most of the time, getting married means that girls have to drop out of school, and no education means no way of becoming independent and earning a living. Additionally, many married girls are psychologically and physically abused by their in-laws as well as husbands.
Countless underage brides haven’t even hit puberty yet when they are forced to consummate the marriage. Apart from the loss of dignity and trauma of this experience, it also has consequences for their health. They are unable to negotiate safe sex and as a result are at risk of HIV/AIDS and STDs. They also lose their reproductive rights―and face the danger of maternal mortality―when they are required to bear and raise children.
What needs to be done?
It’s terrible how marriage, a practice between consenting adults, has become a symbol of abuse and oppression for many children around the world. Although several organisations and strategies are in place to counter the practice, we need to address multiple underlying issues. At the governmental level, free and adequate services, such as education and healthcare, need to be provided. Educating and empowering girls not only delays marriage, but also enables them to gain the skills to support and protect themselves, as well as assert their rights. Financial incentives should be provided for poorer families, where the girls are risk of becoming child brides.
In many countries, the legal marrying age for men is higher than for women. Apart from this, strict laws either have to be established or enforced, setting a minimum age (e.g. 18) for marriage, as well punishing those who force or aid the practice of child marriage. At a societal level, we need to teach communities why child marriages are harmful, and help dispel gender biases, notions of ‘obligation’, and the condemnation of unmarried girls. As individuals, it’s essential to raise awareness through media campaigns, and put pressure on governments and communities to end the cruel and unjust practice of child marriage.
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