Child marriage is defined as the marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18. It is a serious human rights violation that overwhelmingly affects more girls than boys, with an estimated 1 in 5 women alive today being married before their 18th birthday. This has serious and sometimes fatal consequences, such as sexual and other health problems, domestic violence, and death due to complications in pregnancy. Girls who are pushed into early marriage are likely to have reduced economic and educational opportunities, which leads to their entrapment in the poverty cycle. This, in turn, reinforces the belief that girls are inferior, thereby perpetuating the system of gender inequality. These far-reaching consequences of child marriage call for urgent global action.
The roots of child marriage
To address the problem of child marriage, we need to focus on its roots. Gender inequality plays a major role, as both a cause and a consequence of child marriage. This is evident in the cultural and traditional beliefs that promote child marriage, including the beliefs that younger wives are more obedient, marriage is a symbol of respect for women, girls who are married early will give birth to more children, and early marriage will prevent girls from having premarital sex. Such norms expose a high level of discrimination against girls, and results in a situation where girls are disproportionately affected by child marriage.
(Image Source: The Arab Weekly)
Illiteracy is another cause of child marriage, as parents may be unaware of the dangers that come with it. The International Women’s Health Coalition notes that parents sometimes believe that through marriage, they are protecting their daughters and increasing their economic opportunities. A closely related problem is poverty which, when combined with illiteracy, makes it near impossible for the girls or their parents to resist the pressure for early marriage. Parents might also sell their children into marriage to offset debts or settle conflicts, or simply to eliminate the cost of taking care of that child.
Inadequate legal enforcement also contributes to the prevalence of child marriage. In some countries, there are no laws prohibiting child marriage, and where these laws exist, there is low enforcement. For example, it has been reported that the “widespread complicity” of local government officials in Bangladesh has facilitated many of the child marriages. Furthermore, while some countries generally prohibit child marriage, they have laws that allow it to occur in certain circumstances, including where parental consent is given and where the girl is pregnant. UNICEF reports that 50 states in the USA have an exception in law that allows children to marry before the age of 18, and as of 2017, only 4 countries in the EU tolerate no exceptions to the minimum age of 18 for marriage. This sends an unacceptable message that there are special situations in which child marriage is appropriate.
Addressing the problem at its roots
Given these diverse causes, a multifaceted approach must be adopted to provide a solution. One approach involves educating girls and empowering them to assert their rights. There are examples of girls who have escaped child marriage because they were empowered by NGOs working in their communities. When girls are aware of their rights, they have the opportunity to speak out and prevent themselves from being subjected to early marriage.
21-year-old Shalini stopped her own child marriage at 17 and now works as a youth volunteer to empower other girls. (Image Source: Plan International)
Increasing girls’ education should also be supported by awareness-raising campaigns targeted at parents and the wider community. Research has shown that factors such as social and gender norms, as well as barriers in access to services, may limit the effect of education programmes. This is because while young girls might have increased knowledge of their rights, they might not be able to take action on their own. Therefore, parents need to be educated in order to change beliefs of gender inequality that propel them to send their young daughters into early marriage. Similarly, education and awareness-raising campaigns on the dangers of child marriage should help to change societal attitudes and cultural practices that promote this vice.
In addition, economic empowerment should prevent parents from marrying their daughters off to the highest bidders. According to Human Rights Watch, global data shows that girls from the poorest 20 percent of families are twice as likely to marry before 18 as girls whose families are among the richest 20 percent. The less poor a family is, the less likely it is that they will consider their daughters financial burdens to the family. Consequently, there will be less pressure to sell their daughters into early marriage, or to give their daughters away as payment for debts.
Finally, increased law enforcement and tightening of existing laws prohibiting child marriage should discourage people from engaging in this practice and ensure that even where parents consent to marrying their children off, they are not allowed to do so by law.
UNICEF predicts that another 150 million girls will be subjected to child marriage by 2030 if no further action is taken now. We must therefore take action to empower children and their parents, as well as change attitudes regarding child marriage in societies where it is practised. These efforts, in addition to increased legal enforcement, should contribute to reducing the prevalence of child marriage globally.