Child Marriage: A Violation of Human Rights & Deterrent to Development.
Child marriage occurs when one or both of the spouses are below the age of 18. Child marriage is a violation of Article 16(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) states that women should have the same right as men to “freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent”, and that the “betrothal and marriage of a child shall have no legal effect”
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) sets out the human rights of children: the right to survive; the right to develop to their fullest; the right to protection from harmful practices, abuse and exploitation, and the right to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. In signing the Convention, governments also committed to take “all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of the children,” which includes, among other practices, female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage.
Any departure from the obligations enshrined in these conventions is a violation of human rights. By becoming party to these conventions, governments agree to hold themselves accountable for violations. In a landmark international consensus, the Programme of Action adopted by the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, countries agreed on measures to eliminate child marriage as well as to “strictly enforce laws to ensure that marriage is entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses”
END CHILD MARRIAGE Devastating – even life-threatening – consequences The term “child marriage” is used to describe a legal or customary union between two people, of whom one or both spouses is below the age of 18.
While boys can be subjected to child marriage, the practice affects girls in greater numbers and with graver consequences.
Child marriage violates girls’ rights and it does so in a number of ways. It effectively brings a girl’s childhood and adolescence to a premature and unnatural end by imposing adult roles and responsibilities before she is physically, psychologically and emotionally prepared. It is not uncommon for marriage to impose social isolation on girls bringing unwanted separation from their friends and family. Often child marriage brings an end to a girl’s chance of continued education.
Girls may be removed from school for many reasons: recent research suggests that dropping out of school is less likely to be a direct consequence of child marriage than of poverty, the low status afforded to women, and social norms that lead parents to discount the value of investing in girls and their education. But under these conditions, when girls drop out of school, they become even more vulnerable to child marriage.8 Once married, girls are likely to feel, and in many cases are, powerless to refuse sex.
They are likely to find it difficult to insist on condom use by their husbands, who commonly are older and more sexually experienced, making the girls especially vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
At its worst, child marriage can be tantamount to bonded labour or enslavement. It can be a sentence to regular exposure to domestic or sexual violence, and a pathway to commercial exploitation.
Married girls are often under pressure to become pregnant immediately or soon after marriage, although they are still children themselves and know little about sex or reproduction. A pregnancy too early in life before a girl’s body is fully mature is a major risk to both mother and baby. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the main causes of death among adolescent girls ages 15-19 years old in developing countries. Among the disabilities associated with early childbirth is obstetric fistula, an injury which leaves girls in constant pain, vulnerable to infection, incontinent, and often shunned by their husbands, families and communities. Nearly 16 million teenage girls aged 15-19 years old in developing countries give birth every year. In nine out of ten cases, the mother is already married. Preventing child marriage would significantly help to reduce early pregnancy, and the associated maternal death or disability. At the same time, girls would face a reduced risk of HIV infection.
Beyond the immediate implications, child marriage denies girls the opportunity to fully develop their potential as healthy, productive and empowered citizens. Child marriage robs girls of their girlhood, entrenching them and their future families in poverty, limiting their life choices, and generating high development costs for communities. The legal, social and cultural dimensions A recent analysis of the world’s marriage patterns showed that although child marriage persists, the minimum legal age for marriage without parental consent is 18 years in most countries.
Families and girls themselves may simply not know that laws against child marriage exist, and enforcement of such laws is often lax.
Laws also vary widely, and exceptions are made on different MARRYING TOO YOUNG grounds, most commonly when parents or other authorities, such as a judge or community elder, grant their consent. In 2010, 158 countries reported that 18 years was the minimum legal age for marriage for women without parental consent or approval by a pertinent authority.
However, in 146 countries, state or customary law allows girls younger than 18 to marry with the consent of parents or other authorities; in 52 countries, girls under age 15 can marry with parental consent. In contrast, 18 is the legal age for marriage without consent among males in 180 countries.
Additionally, in 105 countries, boys can marry with the consent of a parent or a pertinent authority, and in 23 countries, boys under age 15 can marry with parental consent.
The lack of gender equality in the law’s treatment of the issue of consent reinforces social norms that dictate it is somehow acceptable for girls to marry earlier than boys. Social norms and customs may further dictate that once a girl is married, she be regarded as a woman, even though she may be barely 12 years old. Even with the appropriate laws against child marriage in place, the practice persists for a variety of complex, interrelated reasons. Men exercise the preponderance of power in nearly every aspect of life, which restricts women’s and girls’ exercise of their rights and denies them an equal role in their households and communities. Unequal gender norms put a much higher value on boys and men than on girls and women. When girls from birth lack the same perceived value as boys, families and communities may discount the benefits of educating and investing in their daughters’ development. In addition, girls’ perceived value may shift once they reach puberty and their sexuality suddenly looms front and centre. Child marriage is often seen as a safeguard against premarital sex, and the duty to protect the girl from sexual harassment and violence is transferred from father to husband. Poverty is a major factor underlying child marriage. Many parents genuinely believe that marriage will secure their daughters’ futures and that it is in their best interests. Alternatively, girls may be viewed as an economic burden, as a commodity, or a means for settling familial debts or disputes, or securing social, economic or political alliances.
Customary requirements such as dowries or bride prices may also enter into families’ considerations, especially in communities where families can give a lower dowry for younger brides.
Girls’ vulnerability to child marriage can increase during humanitarian crises when family and social structures are disrupted. In times of conflict and natural disaster, parents may marry off their young daughters as a last resort, either to bring the family some income in time of economic hardship, or to offer the girl some sort of protection, particularly in contexts where sexual violence is common. These girls are called “famine brides”, for example, in food-insecure Kenya.
Young girls were married to widowers as a way to obtain state subsidies for marrying and starting a family. During the conflicts in Liberia, Uganda and Sudan, girls were abducted and given as “bush wives” to warlords, or even given by their families in exchange for protection. Social norms and perceptions that tolerate inequity in gender roles and responsibilities must change, Programmes around the world, including those supported by UNFPA, are making headway. Once parents and communities understand the irreparable harm that the practice of child marriage can inflict on girls, practices can shift. Alternatives to child marriage that build up girls’ assets, coupled with activities to change harmful social norms, must be introduced and implemented so that girls can enjoy the childhood to which they are entitled, and have the space to grow, learn and be a girl.
Just as important is instilling the notion that every person is endowed with inalienable human rights and should be treated with dignity and respect.