Violence against women: Child Marriage

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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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 contrac