FORCED CHILD MARRIAGE
By Vincent Lyn
For those of us in more developed countries, the idea of a young girl, of 13, 14, 15, 16, marrying a much older man is generally seen as disgusting, not to mention illegal. But in many countries it still happens a lot and so many women have had their lives altered significantly by marrying young. Many in the United States would be shocked at the following statistics of child marriage. Nearly 300,000 children — under the age of 18 were legally married in the U.S between 2000–2018. Nearly all the children married were age 16 or 17, typically too young to leave home, enter a domestic violence shelter or file for divorce, even if a marriage turns abusive.
17 years-old- 148,944
16 years-old- 63,956
15 years-old- 8,199
14 years-old- 1,233
13 years-old- 78
12 years-old- 14
11 years-old- 1
10 years-old- 5
Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. More than one in three of these women (about 250 million) were married before the age of 15. The countries with the highest child marriage rates are South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Child marriage is almost always detrimental; it can completely derail the future of a young girl. The bad consequences of an early marriage are many, and the true benefits of these unions are few. And while child marriages are on the decline, it isn’t happening as fast as it needs to. Getting rid of child marriage could be truly transformative to cultures, and the individual lives of women. It would mean brighter futures for so many girls.
Why does child marriage happen?
There are a couple things that influence it. Child marriage and poverty are closely linked. The countries with the highest count of child marriages are all developing countries. In these countries, it’s been found that girls in poor families are 3x more likely to marry before the age of 18 than girls in wealthier families are. Child marriage is often driven by the family’s desire to find someone else to care for their daughter, so that way they have one less mouth to feed. Women are seen as having no economic value — and so their parents marry them off as a way to obtain a dowry.
Within these communities, child marriage is often seen as a way to reduce poverty. But, typically this isn’t true, as child brides often remain impoverished their entire lives. Continuing to attend school to gain skills that help them to support themselves is a much more effective way to escape the cycle of poverty.
So poverty is a main player in the continued existence of child marriage. But the patriarchal bias that exists in these countries is another huge contributor to child marriages. In so many countries around the world, women are simply not valued as much as men. Having a girl child is still a disappointment; boys are fundamentally more wanted in most families in the developing world. Because of this, early marriage disproportionately affects girls, and the system is often built off of the idea that girls have no say in who they marry, and when they marry. The assumption that a woman should be voiceless in these matters is paramount to most child marriages, and rooted deeply in patriarchal bias.
Detrimental Effects of Child Marriage
Most girls who marry early drop out of school. They rarely finish their education, which leaves them without any sort of workable skill sets, or ability to support themselves. And the list of problems that not finishing their education causes girls is another detrimental set of circumstances.
Early marriages often result in babies being born to very young girls. These early pregnancies are downright dangerous, often killing the baby, the mother, or both. The girls’ bodies just aren’t ready to give birth yet, and this creates all sorts of problems. Human Rights Watch found that six of the married girls they interviewed had lost babies, and two of those girls had already lost two children. For girls between the ages of 15 and 19, pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death worldwide. And even if both the mother and the baby survive the pregnancy, now a 14-year-old girl is a mother, left with the plethora of responsibilities that motherhood contains resting on her shoulders.
Girls who marry early are far more likely to experience domestic violence. In India, a study found that child brides were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands as girls who married later. In Northern Ethiopia, a study found that 81% of child brides described their first sexual experience with their husbands as forced. That isn’t okay.
Child brides are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases than women who marry when they are older. They marry older men who have most likely already been sexually active, meaning their partners have a higher chance of having a sexually transmitted disease. It’s hard for the girls to assert their wishes to their older, more dominant husbands. Because of this, they have limited power in the negotiating of safe sex, and often know little about how to have safe sex.
Love marriages and child brides
Not all child marriages in the developing world are nonconsensual. These are referred to as “love marriages,” and are marriages that aren’t arranged by the children’s parents. They are arranged by the children themselves, sometimes in opposition to the wishes of their parents. They also sometimes occur when rumors of a sexual relationship between the two people start, and the children get married to dispel those rumors, even if they aren’t true. Sometimes, the couple will run away together in order to escape a forced marriage to someone else.
Although these marriages are different from arranged marriages, and do take the wishes and desires of the involved parties into consideration, they are still often motivated by the same social and economic factors that encourage arranged child marriages. They also often have many of the same negative results as the coerced marriages.
There are girls who are dying in childbirth because their bodies are still too young to properly carry a child. There are girls contracting HIV/AIDS at the age of 14 because they don’t have the agency to demand safe sex. There are girls who never return to school because they were forced to get married instead. Child marriages steals childhoods. Marriage should be a good thing, a sacred thing, not something that should cause pain and trauma in the lives of young girls.
In 2013, the first United Nations Human Rights Council resolution against child, early, and forced marriages was adopted; the resolution recognizes child, early, and forced marriage as involving violations of human rights which “prevents individuals from living their lives free from all forms of violence and that has adverse consequences on the enjoyment of human rights, such as the right to education, and the right to the highest attainable standard of health including sexual and reproductive health”, and also states that “the elimination of child, early and forced marriage should be considered in the discussion of the post-2015 development agenda.”The elimination of this harmful practice is one of the targets of the United Nations Sustainable Goal 5.
The damaging effect of the pandemic has seen a dramatic spike in child marriages globally. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to disrupt the efforts made so far to end child marriage, and to result in 13 million more girls forced into early marriages between 2020 and 2030. Evidence of an increase in child marriages is already emerging from places such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Nepal.
The COVID-19 health crisis has exacerbated some of the main social and economic drivers of early marriage, such as limited access to education, early pregnancies and poverty. COVID-19-related school closures have interrupted the education of approximately 1.6 billion children worldwide. Evidence from the 2013 Ebola outbreak shows that the probability of returning to school greatly diminishes the longer girls are kept out. This leads to child marriages, as the practice relieves the girl’s family from economic stress in two ways: the prospect of receiving a dowry and the relief from having fewer mouths to feed. Also, one million more girls risk becoming pregnant due to the lockdown measures and disrupted access to reproductive health centers and services given the abrupt halt of interventions by governments, civil society and/or NGOS. To avoid the stigma associated with out of wedlock pregnancies, families may be more inclined to marry their daughters. The economic strain caused by the recession on already vulnerable communities and the loss of family income is additionally forcing families to marry off their young girls, perceiving them as financial burdens rather than potential wage earners. The regions expected to be the most affected in the next few years are South Asia, followed by West and Central Africa and finally, Latin America and the Caribbean.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts