We are going to focus on Child Marriage in this month’s blog as we continue our focus on Violence against women.
Child marriage is defined as a formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), globally child marriage affects girls disproportionately and one in five girls is married or in union before reaching the age of 18. In less developed countries, the number is much higher, 40 percent before the age of 18 and 12 percent before the age of 15. According to the United Nations (UN), if nothing is done by 2030, the number of girls married as children will reach 1 billion. These statistics were published pre-COVID. Due to school closures and poverty factors related to COVID, the number is estimated to be much higher.
Child marriage is driven by several factors.
Gender inequality and the belief that girls and women are inferior to boys and men • In many communities, marrying a daughter at a young age can be viewed as a way to ease economic hardship by transferring this ‘burden’ to her husband’s family. • Driven by patriarchal values and the desire to control female sexuality, for instance, how a girl should behave, how she should dress, who she should be allowed to see, to marry, etc. • Families closely guard their daughters’ sexuality and virginity in order to protect the family honor. Girls who have relationships or become pregnant outside of marriage are shamed for bringing dishonor on their family.
Tradition • It has been happening 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.
Poverty • More than half of girls from the poorest families in the developing world are married as children. • Giving a daughter in marriage allows parents to reduce family expenses by ensuring they have one less person to feed, clothe and educate. • Families may also see investing in their son’s education as more worthwhile investment. In some cases marriage of a daughter is a way to repay debts, manage disputes, or settle social, economic and political alliances. • In communities where a dowry or ‘bride price’ is paid, it is often welcome income for poor families; in those where the bride’s family pays the groom a dowry, they often have to pay less money if the bride is young and uneducated.
Insecurity • Many parents marry their daughters young because they feel it is in her best interest, often to ensure her safety in areas where girls are at high risk of harassment and physical or sexual assault.
Poverty and gender inequality are the key leading factors in child marriage. Parents want to ensure their daughters' financial security; however, daughters are considered an economic burden. Feeding, clothing, and educating girls is costly, and girls will eventually leave the household. A family's only way to recover its investment in a daughter may be to have her married in exchange for a dowry. These are not necessarily heartless parents but, rather, parents who are surviving under heartless conditions.
Child marriage has many effects on the girls’ health: increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, malaria, death during childbirth, and obstetric fistulas. Girls' offspring are at increased risk for premature birth and death as neonates, infants, or children. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death of girls aged 15-18. Long term effects include increased poverty and increased domestic violence and the perpetuation of child marriage over generations.
Child brides can be found in every region in the world, from the Middle East to Latin America, South Asia to Europe. Child marriage is not confined to to poor or developing countries or members of religion or tribal customs, it happens to girls in the wealthiest countries like the US. Many countries in the developed world like the US have not addressed child marriage as there are assumptions that there are enough safe guards in place to stop child marriage.
However those assumptions are are false as the statistics show. Based on research conducted by Unchained At Last, 248,000 children at least as young as 12 were married in the US between 2000 and 2010 and approximately 77% of the children were minor girls married to adult men. Some of the children were wed at an age, or with a spousal age difference that constitutes statutory rape under their state’s laws. Actual data from 38 states showed more than 167,000 children wed in that decade. The other 12 states and Washington, D.C., could not provide the data. For them, Unchained estimated the number of children wed, based on the strong correlation Unchained identified between population and child marriage.
In the U.S federal system, there is no national minimum age of marriage instead state legislatures set the minimum age of marriage for each state. The minimum age in most states is 18, but exceptions in every state allow those younger than 18 to marry. Laws in 23 states do not set a minimum age below which a child cannot marry, meaning that those states’ laws are weaker than child marriage laws in countries like Afghanistan, Honduras and Malawi.
Child brides as minors have limited rights in the US, for example, the ability to retain a attorney, because contracts with children, including retainer agreements, usually are voidable. Children typically are not allowed to file for divorce on their own. In many states, children under 18 are considered “runaways” if they try to leave home, even to escape an abusive husband, and are often returned by authorities against their will. Most domestic violence shelters do not take in anyone under 18 who is not accompanied by a parent or guardian. Advocate organizations like Unchained At Last that help them escape can be charged criminally for doing so. In many cases, these girls consider suicide the only option available to them.
So what is being done to prevent child marriage? Globally the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) #5 of 17 addresses Gender inequality. Section 5.3 specifically aims to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations” by 2030. 193 countries have agreed to end child marriage by 2030. A decade ago that figure of girls getting married before the age of 18 was one in four but new analysis from Unicef suggests there has been significant progress in recent years, particularly in South Asia. In fact, in the past decade a girl in South Asia has seen her risk of being married off early drop from 50% to 30%. India is one of the countries which has led the way. Campaigners say that success now needs to be copied in sub-Saharan Africa. Niger, for example, remains the country with the highest overall rate (76%) of child marriage in the world. Some countries have started offering cash handouts to families if they agree to leave their daughters in school.
In 1980 the United States signed, but has not yet ratified, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1981, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage. The Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international bill of rights for women that has set the standard achieving equality between men and women around the world. One hundred and eighty-six countries have ratified CEDAW since the United Nations' General Assembly approved it on December 18, 1979. Seven member-states of the United Nations have yet to ratify it: Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga - and the United States. US is one of the countries who have signed the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) 5.3 aims to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations” by 2030.
Thanks to advocates against child marriage such as Unchained At Last, four states have passed laws to ban all marriage before the age of 18 with Delaware leading the way, followed by New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. The law to ban marriage before the age of 18 failed in 13 states, 18 states have passed watered down laws still allowing minors to marry with parental or judicial consent including California, 3 states have some form the law pending and the 12 states have not addressed this issue at all.
Education is one of the keys to help end child marriage. It ensures that girls know they have choices and gives them access to resources if they need help. It also gives them the ability to provide for themselves, lifting them out of poverty and stops the generational cycle of child marriage.