Child Marriage

When I was 10 my parents arranged for me to marry in the forest. They pretended it was just a party. But it was a wedding and they sent me away. My mother never told me I was going to be married. They came and took me by force. I cried but it didn't make any difference.

Child Bride aged 10

What is child marriage?

Child/Early marriage refers to any marriage of a child younger than 18 years old, in accordance to Article 1 of the Convention on the Right of the Child. While child marriage affects both sexes, girls are disproportionately affected as they are the majority of the victims. Their overall development is compromised, leaving them socially isolated with little education, skills and opportunities for employment and self-realisation. This leaves child brides more vulnerable to poverty, a consequence of child marriage as well as a cause.

Child marriage is now widely recognised as a violation of children's rights, a direct form of discrimination against the girl child who as a result of the practice is often deprived of her basic rights to health, education, development and equality. Tradition, religion and poverty continue to fuel the practice of child marriage, despite its strong association with adverse reproductive health outcomes and the lack of education of girls.

Child and forced marriage

A forced marriage is defined as a marriage "conducted without the valid consent of one or both parties and is a marriage in which duress - whether physical or emotional - is a factor" [1]. FORWARD believes that any child marriage constitutes a forced marriage, in recognition that even if a child appears to give their consent, anyone under the age of 18 is not able to make a fully informed choice whether or not to marry. Child marriages must be viewed within a context of force and coercion, involving pressure and emotional blackmail and children that lack the choice or capacity to give their full consent.

Where does Child marriage occur?

The countries in the world where child marriage is practiced and gives an indication of the percentage of girls affected by child marriage in each country

SOURCE: UNICEF, 2005 [2]

The map above shows the countries in the world where child marriage is practiced and gives an indication of the percentage of girls affected by child marriage in each country. Child marriage is a worldwide phenomenon but is most prevalent in Africa and Southern Asia and although its practice has decreased somewhat in recent decades, it remains common in, although not only confined to, rural areas and among the most poverty stricken [3].

It is predicted by the UNFPA that worldwide 100 million girls are expected to marry in the next decade [4]. In Africa, UNICEF estimate that 42 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18 and in some African countries the figure is much higher, such as in Niger where there is a 76 per cent incidence of child marriage [5]. The age at which children are married also varies between countries but marriage before the age of 15 is not uncommon and in some areas of West Africa and in Ethiopia, girls are sometimes married as early as age 7 [6].

Why does child marriage occur?

Poverty and economic transactions

Poverty is a critical factor contributing to child marriage and a common reason why parents may encourage a child to marry. Where poverty is acute, a young girl may be regarded as an economic burden and her marriage to a much older - sometimes even elderly - man is believed to benefit the child and her family both financially and socially. In communities where child marriage is practiced marriage is regarded as a transaction, often representing a significant economic activity for a family. A daughter may be the only commodity a family has left to be traded and sometimes girls can be used as currency or to settle debts. A girl's marriage may also take place as a perceived means of creating stability. In uncertain times, poor harvest conditions or war, a family may believe it is necessary to ensure the economical 'safety' of their daughter and family, through marriage.

In Africa the monetary value of bride price, or bride wealth, is linked with marriage. Bride price is a sum, either in cash or kind, used to purchase a bride for her labour and fertility.

In the context of poverty, the practice of paying bride price can encourage early marriage. Young girls, a resource with which their parents can attain greater wealth, are married off a young age, for the bride price and also as a way for parents to lessen their economic burdens.

Notions of morality and honour

Dominant notions of morality and honour are important factors encouraging the practice of child marriage. These are influenced great by the importance placed on maintaining 'family honour' and the high value placed on a girl's virginity. It is considered that shame would be cast on a family if a girl was not a virgin when she marries. Therefore, in order to ensure that a girl's virtue remains in tact, girls may be married earlier, in order to ensure their virginity. Young girls may also be encouraged to marry older men, due to the perception that an older husband will be able to act as a guardian against behaviour deemed immoral and inappropriate.

What are the consequences of child marriage?

There are numerous detrimental consequences associated with Child marriage, with physical, developmental, psychological and social implications.

Physical consequences

When a child bride is married she is likely to be forced into sexual activity with her husband, and at an age where the bride is not physically and sexually mature this has severe health consequences.

Child brides are likely to become pregnant at an early age and there is a strong correlation between the age of a mother and maternal mortality. Girls ages l0-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20-24 and girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die [7]. Young mothers face higher risks during pregnancies including complications such as heavy bleeding, fistula, infection, anaemia, and eclampsia which contribute to higher mortality rates of both mother and child. At a young age a girl has not developed fully and her body may strain under the effort of child birth, which can result in obstructed labour and obstetric fistula. Obstetric fistula can also be caused by the early sexual relations associated with child marriage, which take place sometimes even before menarche.

Good prenatal care reduces the risk of childbirth complications, but in many instances, due to the limited autonomy or freedom of movement, young wives are not able to negotiate access to health care. They may be unable to access health services because of distance, fear, expense or the need for permission from a spouse or in-laws. These barriers aggravate the risks of maternal complications and mortality for pregnant adolescents.

Child brides may also suffer vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. Being young and female in Africa is a major risk factor for infection and young girls are being infected at a considerably disproportional rate to that of boys [8]. Whilst early marriages are sometimes seen by parents as a mechanism for protecting their daughters from HIV/AIDS, future husbands may already be infected from previous sexual encounters; a risk which is particularly acute for girls with older husbands [9]. The age disparity between a child bride and her husband, in addition to her low economic autonomy, further increases a girl's vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. It exacerbates the abilities of girls and women to make and negotiate sexual decisions, including whether or not to engage in sexual activity, issues relating to the use of contraception and condoms for protecting against HIV infection, and also their ability to demand fidelity from their husbands.

There is also a clear link between Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child and early marriages. Communities who practice FGM are also more likely to practice child marriages and in some FGM practicing communities FGM is carried out at puberty and then marriages are arranged immediately afterwards. It is also common in FGM practicing communities for a man to refuse to marry a girl or woman who has not undergone FGM, or to demand that FGM is carried out before marriage.

Developmental consequences

Child Marriage also has considerable implications for the social development of child brides, in terms of low levels of education, poor health and lack of agency and personal autonomy. The Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls explains that 'where these elements are linked with gender inequities and biases for the majority of young girls,their socialisation which grooms them to be mothers and submissive wives, limits their development to only reproductive roles' [10].

Whilst girls in Africa are already less likely to go to attend school than boys, particularly in poorer households, the non-education of the girl child is a problem compounded by child marriage, with studies showing a strong correlation between a woman's age at marriage and the level of education she achieves [11]. Large numbers of the girls who drop out of school do so because of early marriage, leaving many women who married early illiterate. Early marriage plans can also discourage a girl's parents from educating their daughter because they believe that a formal education will only benefit her future family in law.

A lack of education also means that young brides often lack knowledge about sexual relations, their bodies and reproduction, exacerbated by the cultural silence surrounding these subjects. This denies the girl the ability to make informed decisions about sexual relations, planning a family, and her health, yet another example of their lives in which they have no control.

The cyclical nature of early marriage results in a likely low level of education and life skills, increased vulnerability to abuse and poor health, and therefore acute poverty.

Psychological and social consequences

It is a huge responsibility for a young girl to become a wife and mother and because girls are not adequately prepared for these roles this heavy burden has a serious impact on their psychological welfare, their perceptions of themselves and also their relationship.

Women who marry early are more likely to suffer abuse and violence, with inevitable psychological as well as physical consequences. Studies indicate that women who marry at young ages are more likely to believe that it is sometimes acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, and are therefore more likely to experience domestic violence themselves [12]. Violent behaviour can take the form of physical harm, psychological attacks, threatening behaviour and forced sexual acts including rape. Abuse is sometimes perpetrated by the husband's family as well as the husband himself, and girls that enter families as a bride often become domestic slaves for the in-laws.

Early marriage has also been linked to wife abandonment and increased levels of divorce or separation [13] and child brides also face the risk of being widowed by their husbands who are often considerably older. In these instances the wife is likely to suffer additional discrimination as in many cultures divorced, abandoned or widowed women suffer a loss of status, and may be ostracised by society and denied property rights.

International Human Rights Instruments and Child Marriage

Child marriage is a violation of human rights and is prohibited by a number of international conventions and other instruments. A selection of these are provided below, this list is not exhaustive list and some of the relevant texts have been paraphrased for clarity:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

Article 16 (1) Men and women of full age have the right to marry and found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending parties.

Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, 1964

Article 1, No marriage shall be legally entered into without the full and free consent of both parties, such consent to be expressed by them in person as prescribed by law. Article 2, States Parties to the present Convention shall specify a minimum age for marriage ("not less than 15 years" according to the nonbinding recommendation accompanying this Convention). No marriage shall be legally entered into by any person under this age, except where a competent authority has granted a dispensation as to age, for serious reasons, in the interests of the intending spouses Article 3, All marriages shall be registered by the competent authority.

African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, 1990

Article XXI, Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and effective action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be eighteen years.

Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

The CRC has been ratified by all countries with the exception of the United States and Somalia. A number of articles within the CRC hold relevance to Child marriage, however a small number are listed here, Article 3: In all actions concerning children the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. Article 19: The right to protection from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parents, guardian, or any other person. Article 24: The right to health; and to access to health services; and to be protected from harmful traditional practices. Articles 28 and 29: The right to education on the basis of equal opportunity. Article 34: The right to protection from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. Article 36: The right to protection from all forms of exploitation prejudicial to any aspect of the child's welfare.

What can be done?

Early marriage is often perceived as the only option for girls and is often seen by parents of young girls as a means of securing both their own and their daughter's future. Child marriage is an issue that cannot be solved in isolation as it is results from a complexity of social, cultural and economic dimensions and widespread gender discrimination. The causes and consequences of child marriage are intrinsically linked, including girl's lack of autonomy and low levels of education, poor health status, poverty and overall low socioeconomic status.

Repeated studies have shown the important role that education must play in efforts to eliminate child marriage. Research by UNICEF shows that the more education a girl receives, the less likely she is to be married as a child . Improving access to education and eliminating gender gaps in education are therefore important strategies for ending the practice of child marriage.

Action

FORWARD, with other organisations working in the field of the child and women's rights has developed programmes aimed at eradicating this practice and realising the rights of the girl child. In several African countries FORWARD has programmes to address violations of the rights of girls and women which contribute to their low socio economic status and other causal factors of child marriage. In Northern Nigeria FORWARD has established clinics to treat girls and women with obstetric fistula and runs income-generating schemes and other initiatives to improve their social and economic status and well-being. Lessons learnt from this programme have highlighted the importance of a holistic approach to addressing child marriage, necessitating integrated education, health, economic and participatory community development programmes.

FORWARD and the Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls

FORWARD was instrumental in launching the Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls, in November 1998. The forum was established to share experiences of research and programme work on issues of forced and early marriage. Through a global network the forum aims to improve approaches to work on this issue and develop common strategies.

Footnotes

Note 1 Forced Marriage Unit, UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 2006, Forced Marriage: A Wrong Not a Right, available at: this link
Note 2 UNICEF, 2005, Early Marriage: A Harmful Traditional Practice, available at: this link
Note 3 UNFPA, 2005, Child Marriage Fact Sheet, available at: this link
Note 4 UNFPA, 2005, Child Marriage Fact Sheet, available at: this link
Note 5 UNICEF, 2005, Early Marriage: A Harmful Traditional Practice, available at: this link
Note 6 UNFPA, 2005, Child Marriage Fact Sheet, available at: this link
Note 7 UNFPA, 2005, Child marriage Factsheet, available at: this link
Note 8 UNFPA. 2004. Child Marriage Advocacy Programme: Fact Sheet on Child Marriage and Early Union.
Note 10 The Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls, Early marriage and Poverty - Exploring links for policy and programme development, 2003, FORWARD.
Note 11 Jenson, R. and R. Thornton, 2003, 'Early female marriage in the developing world', Gender and Development, vol. 11, no. 2, 2003, pp. 9-19.
Note 12 Jenson, R. and R. Thornton, 2003, 'Early female marriage in the developing world', Gender and Development, vol. 11, no. 2, 2003, pp. 9-19.
Note 13 UNICEF,2001, Early Marriage: Child Spouses, available at: this link
Note 14 UNICEF, 2001, Early marriages, Child spouses, available at: this link

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