She’s eight years old. Yesterday, she was a girl, outside laughing as she played jump rope with her girlfriends. Today is her wedding day. By nightfall, she will be a woman. The laughter has given sway to tears. Her parents, who agreed to the marriage, have little to offer by way of consolation. She feels all alone. She’s scared and has no safe person she can turn to for comfort. Imagine how she feels the morning after.
This is not a unique situation. An estimated 15 million girls under age 18 are married each and every year[i]. This translates to a child marriage every two seconds. Of that number, one in seven is under 15; with a noteworthy number of child brides being a mere eight or nine years old.
This is an endemic human rights issue. Only through support of educational programmes and of those institutions seeking to eradicate this tragic condition will there be global change benefiting everyone.
The etiology of child marriages is traceable to historical gender inequality, economic hardship and, more often than not, to antiquated religious beliefs[ii].
Take for instance the situation in Türkiye, where more than a third of all marriages involve underage girls. These marriages, despite being illegal, occur without recrimination in Türkiye’s highly patriarchal society. The marriage ceremonies are performed by an Iman and are never registered with the government[iii]. As such, the number is estimated to be even higher based on statistics derived from the high maternal mortality rates and from marriage being cited as the primary reason for dropping out of the educational process[iv].
In India, in addition to no longer having to financially provide for their daughter, child marriage is incorrectly perceived as protecting their daughters from sexual or other abuse, and premarital sex[v].
The situation extends beyond tradition, with climate change also having an impact in drought-ridden countries such as Ethiopia. “Barren lands and food shortages are causing more poverty-stricken families who can’t afford to feed their children to marry off their daughters to wealthier men[vi].”
The other source of child marriages emanates from the radicalized terrorists who pillage villages taking young girls as plunder, who are then married within the ‘cell’ or who are sold to others[vii].
These factors are stronger than the laws protecting against child marriages[viii], assuming a country is a member state, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Protocol for the African Charter on Human, and the People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in African[ix]. Even if the county is member state, enforcement is a fallacy.
The risks associated with child marriages, especially for girls under the age of 15, are immense:
Child brides or girls who otherwise become pregnant under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die during the birthing process than a woman in the 20-24 year old age bracket[x].
The infant mortality rate is even more alarming, with babies born to mothers under 20 years old being 50 percent more likely to die within a few weeks after birth as compared to babies born to mothers in their 20s[xi].
Child brides and their children are more likely to develop HIV and other health related issues[xii].
According to the World Health Organization, child brides are more likely to be sexual abuse and domestic violence victims[xiii]. This is in sync with UNICEF’s finding that one in three women and girls will experience violence in their lifetime.
They are unlikely to seek help for domestic violence, as one half of all adolescent girls believe that a husband is justified in striking his wife in anger.
Marriage almost always signifies the end of their formal education[xiv]. Those girls attempting to continue their education face barriers, including disapproval by their husbands and families, pressure to conceive, and an inability to pay school fees[xv].
The lack of education perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty. Consider that, if called upon to do so, these girls have no skills upon which they can support themselves or their children. Given that their husbands average 10 years older, and that women have a longer life expectancy, a child bride can reasonably be expected to be the breadwinner at some point during her lifetime[xvi].
Breaking the Cycle
Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's Regional Director for West and Central Africa, stated that minimally the “…cycle of poverty that could be broken by focusing on girls' rights and education.”
This involves educating not only the girls but their communities. Education as to previously unconsidered benefits is necessary both prior to marriage and once a marriage is consummated. Girls receiving seven years of education marry, on the average, four years later, leading to lessened maternal and infant mortality rates. Extending a girl's schooling by just one year increases her wages by 18-20%. Education also benefits her family, as child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to live past the age of five and four times more likely to receive life-saving vaccinations[xvii].
“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 (Emphasis Added) [xviii].”
As a result of educational programmes conducted by local and global organizations, such as UNICEF and NGOs[xix], there has been some isolated headway, most notably in Central America[xx]. What gains have been made are dwarfed by predictive statistical analysis.
In Africa alone, despite a 10% drop since 1990, a recent UNICEF study estimated that the total number of child brides will skyrocket from 125 million to 310 million by 2050[xxi]. The problem extends beyond Africa with the highest rates of child marriages taking place, in descending order, in Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the East Asia areas[xxii]; statistics that are skewed given China’s failure to report its statistics to UNICEF.
How You Can Help
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said: "The sheer number of girls affected - and what this means in terms of lost childhoods and shattered futures - underline the urgency of banning the practice of child marriage once and for all[xxiii].”
Asked how the public can help, Jolijn van Haaren, a UNICEF child rights specialist based in the Netherlands, elaborated:
"UNICEF is working in many countries to increase the understanding that no girl should marry before the age of 18 years old.
We work closely together with national and local authorities to get a clear statement on child marriage in the juridical sense. We also find it helps to inform the community via traditional leaders and schools that child marriage has many health risks for girls, who face a lifetime problems and sometimes death if they give birth too young. Thirdly we support girls in local communities as ambassadors against child marriage. It is this mixed approach that brings down child marriage slowly but securely.
As child marriages happen rarely in The Netherlands, the general public might not be aware of the tremendous problem. When I first heard that worldwide, 1 in 3 women is being married during childhood, I could not believe it myself. One of the root cause for child marriage is the discrimination against girls- Especially poor girls, lack essential rights as the right to participation, the right to education and the right to protection. So if you ask me what the public in the Netherlands and abroad can do to stop this phenomenon: to support girls rights, to speak out about equal right for boys and girls, in schools, on Social media, and during public debates. By raising the topic the general public can hold their governments accountable for respecting children’s rights, for both boys and girls."
You can help by supporting not only UNICEF, but recognized NGOs, such Girls Not Brides[xxiv], Because I Am a Girl[xxv], and the Alexia Foundation[xxvi]. These and other organizations not only need monetary donations but donations of your time, which can range from something as simple as signing a petition, supporting one girl, or making a more significant commitment of your personal and professional skills and resources.
About the Author
Cynthia M. Lardner has a journalism, counseling and a law degree. As a thought leader, her philosophy is to collectively influence conscious global thinking understanding that everything and everyone is subject to change given the right circumstances; Standard Theory or Theory of Everything.
Having just relocated to Den Hague or The Hague, she is currently looking for a challenging position that will fully utilize her collective skill set. She is particularly interested in foreign policy and social justice.
(“Six percent of Lebanese girls are married by the time they turn 18, and 1 percent by age 15, UNICEF reported last year. Across the world, 15 million girls are married each year before their 18th birthday.
Currently, Lebanon's legal age for marriage without parental consent is 17 for girls and 18 for boys, The Independent reported in July. With parental consent, however, girls as young as 9 can legally get married in the country, according to the World Policy Center, which collected data from resources including legal databases.
Lebanon said last year that it was working on a draft law to regulate child marriages, but that religious authorities could still exempt families from marriage laws. Different religious communities in Lebanon have varying laws on marriage and personal status, according to global rights organization Girls Not Brides.”).
[v] Banerji, Ann, "Breaking tradition, child brides fight for freedom", The China Post, as found on the www athttp://m.chinapost.com.tw/asia/2015/10/19/448698/Breaking-tradition.htm(“Although illegal, millions in India are married as children in a deep-rooted tradition in mostly poor and rural areas. Nearly 50 percent of women, aged 20 to 24, say they were married before the legal age of 18, government figures show.”).
[vi] Mormann, Nicole, "Ethiopia’s Worst Drought in Decades Is Leading to More Child Brides", December 11, 2015, Take Part, as found on the www at https://www.takepart.com/article/2015/12/11/ethiopias-worst-drought-decades-leading-more-child-brides.
[ix] Ma, Alexandra, Infra Endnote i (“Article 16 of the United Nations' 1979 Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which protects women's and girls' choice in marriage. Article 16 of CEDAW mandates that countries grant men and women equal rights to choose their spouse, enter into marriage and manage familial affairs.”).
[xiv] Mormann, Nicole, Infra Endnote vi. See also Gebrekidan, Alemtsahye “Overcoming Adversity: An Ethiopian Child Bride’s Struggle For Education”, December 13, 2013, allAfrica.com, as found on the www athttp://allafrica.com/stories/201312131074.html (A blog account of what it was like to be married at age 10 and to be deprived of an education.).
[xviii] United Nations Children's Fund, Ending Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects, Infra Endnote xvi.
[xix] Girls Not Brides, http://www.girlsnotbrides.org/, is a global partnership of over 400 civil society organisations spanning 60 countries, is committed to ending child marriage. Case studies are available upon request via media@GirlsNotBrides.org. A series of first person stories related to child marriage can be found via the ‘Girl’s Voices’ section of its website. Follow on Twitter at @GirlsNotBrides.
[xx] Perry, Tod, "Guatemala Votes to Raise Minimum Marriage Age to 18", November 17, 2015, as found on the www athttp://magazine.good.is/articles/guatemala-takes-steps-to-prevent-child-marriage (“According to UNICEF, 7 percent of girls in Guatemala are married by age 15, and 30 percent are married by the age of 18. Child marriage not only impedes girls’ personal and educational development, but married girls run a higher risk of being subjected to domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, and poverty. That’s why, earlier this month, Guatemala’s congress took a big step to curb the practice of child marriage. In a landslide victory, the legislators voted 87-15 to raise the minimum marriage age for both genders to 18. Previously, girls as young as 14 and boys as young as 16 could marry.”).
See also Girls Not Brides (@GirlsNotBrides) “Progress in Latin America as Guatemala, Ecuador and Mexico change legislation to #endchildmarriage”, December 14, 2015, https://t.co/HtJMZhGGjG, Tweet, citing, “UN launches regional flagship programme to eradicate child marriage,” November 27, 2015, as found on the www at http://lac.unwomen.org/en/noticias-y-eventos/articulos/2015/11/matrimonio#sthash.yHY4yuA1.dpuf (“The United Nations in Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador are advancing in diagnosing the problem and generating visibility. A first achievement of this initiative is highlighted in Guatemala where a recent decree established the same marriage age for boys and girls, eliminating the exceptions to the minimum marriage age of parental consent or guardian authorization and making judges listen to the minor. Unions with minors were also prohibited. In the case of Mexico, the General Law on the Rights of Children and Adolescents came into effect in December 2014, establishing the age of 18 as the minimum marriage age. To date, all but three Mexican states have harmonized their state laws. In Ecuador, in June 2015, a reform of the Civil Code was approved that established the age of 18 as the minimum marriage age, without legal exceptions.); and Ludden, Jennifer, National Public Radio (NPR): Can child marriages be stopped?, November 25, 2013, NPR News, as found on the www athttp://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/11/25/245973216/can-child-marriages-be-stopped (Article highlights efforts by a Malawian women who established a nonprofit, Girls Empowerment Network, which is slowly challenging and eroding the complex mix of culture, economics and sexism that drives child marriage in Malawi.).
[xxi] McKenzie, David, Infra Endnote ii (“Slow rates of reduction and ballooning populations are the main cause of the projected increases.”).
[xxvi] The Alexia Foundation, as found on the www athttp://www.alexiafoundation.org/ (“The Alexia Foundation promotes the power of photojournalism to give voice to social injustice, to respect history lest we forget it and to understand cultural difference as our strength – not our weakness.”).