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Amy Kerr

Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence

Violence against women and girls is a significant human rights violation but it is still perpetrated in many countries around the world. Gender-based violence is a term which is used for any harmful act carried out against a person’s will because of gender differences between men and women. These acts can cause physical, sexual or mental harm and can include coercion or threats.[1]  According to the World Bank Group, gender-based violence affects 1 in 3 women during their lifetime with 35% of women experiencing physical and/or sexual violence.[2] The World Bank Group also states that around the world, 38% of murders of women are carried out by their partners and 200 million women and girls have experienced female genital mutilation.[3] These statistics are alarming and violence against women and girls can cause long-lasting and detrimental effects.

In this article, we will firstly look at what causes gender-based violence around the world. We will then consider the impact of gender-based violence on girls and women. Lastly, we will examine the work carried out by charities and other organisations to help eradicate the practice of gender-based violence.

The main causes of gender-based violence

Poverty

Poverty is one of the main drivers behind gender-based violence globally. Women and girls living in poverty often face discrimination due to gender biases and unequal power relationships. As a result of these gender inequalities, they are exposed to many forms of violence.[4] Women and girls living in poverty may reside in unsafe and dangerous environments which increases their risk to violence. They often have to walk long distances through isolated places to gather firewood or collect water and as a result, they are at risk of sexual assault.[5] Furthermore, women and girls in poverty are often tasked with countless household chores and this may create problems within the household which regularly leads to domestic violence.[6] Sadly, these women and girls do not have many opportunities to leave violent relationships with their partners because they lack income and resources.[7]

Cultural and social norms

In many communities, violence against women and girls is often overlooked as being a cultural or social norm. Norms and attitudes within communities and cultures can often be difficult to change because they may be based on religion and other factors.[8] Some communities do not recognise wife beating as violence and sexually harassing girls is considered a norm.[9] According to The Borgen Project, families uphold the sexual purity of women and girls and this is why female genital mutilation is a widespread practice in many communities.[10] Family honour is regarded as more important than women and girls’ safety which results in honour killings.[11] Additionally, the practice of widow inheritance is common and considered a cultural norm. This is where a widow is forced to marry a male relative of her late husband in order to prevent the women being able to inherit land and property.[12]

Perpetrators are not punished due to violence being unreported

Many forms of violence are not reported to the authorities and accordingly, perpetrators are not punished and the violent acts against women and girls can continue. Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, has stated that ‘[s]exual violence against women and girls is rooted in centuries of male domination…reminding the world that stigma, misconceptions, under-reporting and poor enforcement of laws perpetuate impunity in rape cases’.[13] According to the World Health Organisation, there are many reasons why girls and women do not report violence including insufficient support systems; shame; fear of retaliation; fear of not being believed or blamed, and fear of being socially ostracised.[14] In some places, raped women and girls may be killed if they are regarded as having dishonoured their families.[15] Furthermore, law enforcement agencies may not recognise women’s rights and are also impacted by gender inequalities. As a result, violence is overlooked and violent acts continue to be pursued.

The impact of gender-based violence

Girl looking at lens

Physical and sexual health problems

Gender-based violence can cause many physical and sexual health problems for women and girls. These include unwanted pregnancies, male impotence and the possibility of being infected by a sexually transmitted disease such as HIV.[16] According to Médicins Sans Frontières, STIs are more likely caused by forced sex as viruses can enter through tears.[17] Unwanted pregnancies can often lead to abortions being carried out in unsafe conditions. The World Health Organisation’s 2013 study found that those who had been sexually or physically abused were twice as likely to have an abortion.[18] Physical health problems can include neurological illnesses, gastrointestinal illnesses, and muscularly, urinary or reproductive problems.[19]

Mental health problems

Victims of gender-based violence often suffer from many psychological and mental health problems as well. These include depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and thoughts of suicide.[20] Médicins Sans Frontières has noted that victims may also suffer from guilt and feel as though they could have avoided any incident. Women and girls may also struggle with trusting others which could affect relationships with others.[21] Additionally, survivors of gender-based violence may be frowned upon in some communities and victims of rape may be humiliated in certain cultures which can lead to their mental health suffering.[22]

The impact on children who are born as a result of gender-based violence

Gender-based violence can also impact child survival rates and may contribute to increasing infant mortality rates.[23] A study in the Tigray region of Ethiopia has shown that women who were subject to intimate partner violence were 3 times more likely to have a low birth weight and preterm birth. The study also shows that women who were subject to physical violence during pregnancy were 5 times more likely to experience low birth weight and preterm birth.[24] There are many issues associated with low birth weight including children suffering from infections, malnutrition, issues with cognitive development, stunting by the age of two, chronic disease and problems in education and economic activities at a later age.[25]

Ways to eradicate gender-based violence

The World Bank Group has argued that in order to reduce violence against women and girls, a community-based, multi-pronged stance is required along with cooperation with different stakeholders.[26] Charities, organisations and other bodies have adopted various approaches to help to decrease gender-based violence and some of these are outlined below.

Prevention

Preventing violence against women and girls before it is carried out is one of the main ways to stop violent acts all together. Structural biases and cultural norms need to be addressed and the discriminatory acts which women and girls face need to be considered.[27] UN Women has adopted a prevention strategy which looks at early education, achieving valued relationships and working with men and boys through media, sports and work.[28] Working with men and boys helps to educate them about gender equality and teaches them about the negative impact of violent behaviours on girls and women. UN Women partnered with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and have implemented a curriculum which allows young people to understand causes of violence in communities. The curriculum also helps to educate people in the communities and prevent gender-based violence.[29]

Advocacy

Laws promoting gender equality and defining violence need to be implemented and enforced within local communities. Charities such as CARE International advocate for laws and policies to be created, revised or improved and base their work on international agreements such as the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Security Council Resolution 1325.[30] Other charities and organisations create public awareness campaigns for both men and women which help them to become aware of their rights, the legal consequences for violent behaviour and the effects of gender-based violence on the future generation.[31] Plan International has introduced a Safer Cities for Girls programme which enables girls to voice any issues in urban areas and allows them to advocate for change.[32]

Supporting survivors of violence

Many charities and organisations have created support networks for victims of violence. CARE International works with partners to implement community support systems for victims of violence in order to ensure they are safe. Initiatives include community watch groups and safe houses.[33] Other organisations such as International Medical Corps provides specialised support services for survivors of gender-based violence in emergency settings. Survivors are provided with tailored support from workers who help them to access services and support. International Medical Corps have implemented women and girls’ safe spaces in camps and communities in Iraq and have trained Iraqi and Syrian women to provide support services to survivors. If survivors require more psychological support, they can be referred to Mental Health/Psycho-Social services.[34]

Conclusion

Overall, it is clear that gender-based violence remains prevalent in many countries throughout the world. Poverty along with gender inequality are the main drivers of violence against women and girls along with cultural and social norms. Violence often goes unreported meaning that perpetrators are not punished and continue to commit these acts of violence. Gender-based violence has many physical and sexual health consequences for women and girls. It affects them mentally and children who are born as a result of gender-based violence can also be indirectly affected. Charities and organisations around the world have introduced initiatives aimed at changing attitudes and norms within communities, advocating the introduction and amendment of laws and policies, and also offer services aimed at supporting victims of violence. In addition to the extensive work already being carried out by many charities and organisations, more groundwork, lobbying and collaboration with local authorities and community leaders is required in order to eradicate gender-based violence all together.


[1]Inter-Agency Standing Committee 2015, ‘Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action: Reducing risk, promoting resilience and aiding recovery’ <https://gbvguidelines.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/2015_IASC_Gender-based_Violence_Guidelines_full-res.pdf> accessed 25 October 2021

[2]World Bank Group, ‘Gender-Based Violence (Violence Against Women and Girls)’ <https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/socialsustainability/brief/violence-against-women-and-girls> accessed 25 October 2021

[3]ibid

[4]UN Women, ‘Women and poverty’ <https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/end-violence-against-women/2014/poverty> accessed 25 October 2021

[5]NGO Pulse, ‘Gender-based Violence and Poverty’ <http://www.ngopulse.org/node/75924> accessed 25 October 2021

[6]ibid

[7]UN Women, ‘Women and poverty’ (n 4)

[8]The Borgen Project, ‘Poverty and gender-based violence’ <https://borgenproject.org/poverty-and-gender-based-violence/> accessed 25 October 2021

[9]NGO Pulse, ‘Gender-based Violence and Poverty’ (n 5)

[10]The Borgen Project, ‘Poverty and gender-based violence’ (n 8)

[11]ibid

[12]NGO Pulse, ‘Gender-based Violence and Poverty’ (n 5)

[13]United Nations, ‘A staggering one-in-three women, experience physical, sexual abuse’ (24 November 2019)

[14]World Health Organisation, ‘Understanding and addressing violence against women’ <https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/77434/WHO_RHR_12.37_eng.pdf;jsessionid=475E9CAE52F74885D38DEFDBA680079E?sequence=> accessed 25 October 2021

[15]NGO Pulse, ‘Gender-based Violence and Poverty’ (n 5)

[16]Inter-Agency Standing Committee 2015, ‘Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action: Reducing risk, promoting resilience and aiding recovery’ (n 1)

[17]Médicins Sans Frontières, ‘Sexual and gender-based violence’ <https://msf.org.uk/issues/sexual-and-gender-based-violence> accessed 25 October 2021

[18]World Health Organisation, ‘Violence against women’ <https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women> accessed 25 October 2021

[19]Inter-Agency Standing Committee 2015, ‘Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action: Reducing risk, promoting resilience and aiding recovery’ (n 1)

[20]ibid

[21]Médicins Sans Frontières, ‘Sexual and gender-based violence’ (n 17)

[22]ibid

[23]Inter-Agency Standing Committee 2015, ‘Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action: Reducing risk, promoting resilience and aiding recovery’ (n 1)

[24]Berhanie, E., Gebregziabher, D., Berihu, H, Gerezgiher A., Kidane G.,‘Intimate partner violence during pregnancy and adverse birth outcomes: a case-control study’ Reproductive Health 16, 22 (2019) <https://doi.org/10.1186/s12978-019-0670-4> accessed 25 October 2021

[25]Ferdos J., Rahman M.M., ‘Maternal experience of intimate partner violence and low birth weight of children: A hospital-based study in Bangladesh’ PLoS ONE 12(10): e0187138 (2017) <https:// doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187138> accessed 25 October 2021

[26]World Bank Group, ‘Gender-Based Violence (Violence Against Women and Girls)’ (n 2)

[27]UN Women, ‘Ending violence against women’ <https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women> accessed 25 October 2021

[28]ibid

[29]ibid

[30]CARE International, ‘Challenging Gender-based Violence Worldwide: CARE’s Program Evidence Strategies, Results and Impacts of Evaluations 2011-2013’ <https://insights.careinternational.org.uk/media/k2/attachments/Challenging-GBV-Worldwide-CARE-program-experience-2014.pdf> access 25 October 2021

[31]NGO Pulse, ‘Gender-based Violence and Poverty’ (n 5)

[32]Plan International, ‘Gender-based violence’ <https://plan-international.org/ending-violence/gbv-gender-based-violence> accessed 25 October 2021

[33]CARE International, ‘Challenging Gender-based Violence Worldwide: CARE’s Program Evidence Strategies, Results and Impacts of Evaluations 2011-2013’ (n 30)

[34]International Medical Corps, ‘Focused support services for survivors of gender-based violence; Gender-based Violence Prevention & Response’ <https://internationalmedicalcorps.org/program/womens-childrens-health/gender-based-violence-response-prevention/focused-support-services-for-survivors-of-gender-based-violence/> accessed 25 October 2021

Girls’ education

Girls in school uniform

Every child should be afforded the opportunity to attend school and learn the fundamental skills required in life. Education allows children to grow and develop important knowledge in order to strive and succeed in their future lives. Whether a child should have access to this should not be based on his or her gender. Nevertheless, for children living in poverty, it is mostly girls who are deprived of this which leads to gender inequality. According to UNICEF, around the world, 129 million girls are not in school. This includes 32 million girls of primary school age, 30 million girls of lower-secondary school age and 67 million girls of upper-secondary school age.[1] Statistics show that only 49% of countries have an equal number of boys and girls in primary education and this percentage lowers at secondary school level with only 42% of countries having an equal number of boys and girls in lower-secondary education and 24% in upper-secondary education.

In this article, we will firstly look at the reasons as to why girls are prevented from accessing education in many countries worldwide. We will then consider why it is crucial that girls can access education. Lastly, we will explore some of the projects and initiatives set up by charities which aim to help girls access education.

Barriers preventing girls’ education

Girl reading textbook at school

Poverty

Poverty is one of the main drivers behind girls’ lack of education in many countries around the world. According to the World Bank Group, girls who belong to a family with little income, live in remote locations, have a disability or who are part of a minority ethno-linguistic group are the most behind in terms of accessing and completing education.[2] Families with little income often do not have the money to pay for schools and costs related to schooling such as textbooks, uniforms, transportation and supplies.[3] Therefore, if there are multiple children in a family, boys are usually favoured when it comes to education and girls are asked to help around the house and look after siblings or family members.[4]

Child marriage

Sadly, poverty also results in child marriage which is another reason as to why girls lack education. As stated by Dolores Dixon, Executive Director for Camfed in Canada, “parents who can afford it would not necessarily hold back their children from going to school but if you can’t afford it you will then have to make a choice…they feel [marriage] is the best option within the limited options”.[5] Girls who marry at a young age are less likely to attend school and are more likely to complete less years of education and have children at a young age. The World Bank Group has reported that girls who have been in secondary education are up to six times less likely to marry as girls who have not been educated.[6]

Violence

Girls are often subjected to violence on their way to school and also within schools which prevents them from attending school and dropping out. ActionAid has reported that in the Upper West region of Ghana, girls have to walk long distances to school. More than 50 girls a year are abducted and subjected to sexual violence or sexual exploitation on their way to school.[7] Girls are mostly in danger during the rainy season where attackers hide in the long grass waiting for girls on their way to school.[8]

Girls also face gender-based violence within schools which significantly impacts their physical and mental health and consequently leads to them dropping out of schools. Studies have shown that many schools lack facilities which make them safe such as perimeter fences and well-lit pathways.[9] Nora Fyles, Head of Secretariat for UN Girls’ Education Initiative has stated that “[girls] don’t think about learning when they’re trying to figure out what the next exit is or whether they can go to the toilet and be safe”.[10]

Gender biases in schools

Many practices and facilities within schools are discriminatory towards girls which also results in girls not being able to attend school or dropping out. A lot of schools do not have water, sanitation or hygiene facilities which accommodate girls, for example separate toilets for boys and girls.[11] Marni Sommer, Associate Professor in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University, has noted that “[t]here is shame, there’s embarrassment…I’ve been in countries where girls thought if they told anybody [they were menstruating] they’d die”.[12]

Furthermore, in a lot of countries, teaching methods, practices and syllabuses are not gender-neutral which results in gender biases and stereotypes against girls and women.[13] A lot of the time, teachers have not been told how to respond to gender-based violence in schools and do not know how to help girls with issues they have. This leads to girls not feeling comfortable, safe or secure within schools.

Reasons as to why education is important

Breaks poverty cycle

There are several reasons as to why it is as important for girls to access and complete education. Firstly, if girls are educated, they are more likely to attain better paid jobs and earn more money which helps to break the poverty cycle. This in turn creates additional opportunities for girls and women and can contribute to economic growth. According to the Malala Fund, more women in work can add up to $12 trillion to the global economy.[14]

Furthermore, educating girls provides them with core skills which allows them to take up more complex leadership roles such as in politics. This helps them to create effective change, participate in decisions affecting their families and communities, and advocate for future policies.[15] It also reduces the gender gap within jobs and allows everyone to be entitled to the same opportunities.[16]

Reduces child marriage and improves the health of girls

Allowing girls to access education also means that they are less likely to marry at a young age and drop out of school. ActionAid has reported that in 18 out of 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage, girls who are not in schools are up to six times more likely to marry young than girls who have been educated at secondary level.[17] Educating girls means that they have more control over their lives and will be less likely to suffer from domestic violence.[18]

Additionally, girls who stay in schools are less likely to become pregnant or give birth at a young age which decreases infant and maternal mortality rates.[19] Research has shown that in sub-Saharan Africa, the birth rate among girls who have been educated at secondary level is four times less than girls who have not been educated.[20] Furthermore, well-educated girls are less at risk of contracting HIV and are more likely to utilise methods to prevent diseases such as malaria, for example, by using bed nets.[21]

Helps to prepare for natural disasters

Studies have shown that educating girls is also useful for climate change and preparing for natural disasters. Brookings Institution has reported that girls who are secondary level educated are the most cost-effective and most effective investment against climate change.[22] They have knowledge about how to cope when there is a natural disaster or when there is severe weather due to climate change and as a result, less deaths or injuries occur within families and communities.[23]

Ways to help girls access education

Happy children at school

One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to ‘[e]nsure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ by 2030.[24] However, there is a lot to be done in order to reduce gender inequality in schools and allow more girls to access education around the world. Many charities have set up projects and initiatives and some of these are outlined below.

Helping girls get to school safely

As mentioned previously in the article, girls are often at risk of being abducted and are subjected to sexual violence or sexual exploitation whilst making their way to school. Therefore, it is crucial that there are plans to help girls get to school safely. ActionAid have implemented an initiative where they provide bikes to girls which shortens the long and dangerous route to school and means that girls do not have to leave very early in the morning when it is still dark outside.[25]

Eliminating gender inequality in schools

It is also important to remove gender inequality and stereotypes within schools. UNICEF is carrying out work whereby they aim to help governments implement gender-responsive budgets and impose national education policies and plans which promote gender equality. UNICEF is also developing secondary education initiatives which aim to remove discriminatory practices and look at menstrual hygiene practices in schools.[26]

Sponsoring a child

Through many charities such as ActionAid or World Vision Canada you can sponsor a child which helps to tackle poverty and ensures everyone obtains an education.[27] Sponsoring a child can help provide basic necessities to families in poverty. It can also help to pay for school fees, equipment and materials associated with schooling such as textbooks. Additionally, it can help to pay for a school building in the place where the child lives. ActionAid has successful changed girls’ lives in Zanzibar. It has been reported that through sponsorship, a school, nursery and hospital were built and children now have somewhere they can go.[28]

Conclusion

Overall, it is clear that both boys and girls should have the right to education and equal opportunities in life, however, in many countries, girls are prevented from being educated which leads to gender inequality. Barriers include poverty, child marriage, violence and gender biases in schools. Educating girls helps to break the poverty cycle, reduces the number of child marriages and improves the health of girls, and it helps families and communities prepare for natural disasters and climate change. Several charities around the world have implemented initiatives and projects which aim to improve girls’ education. Nevertheless, more work needs to be done in local communities in order for the gender gap in education to be eliminated altogether.

[1]UNICEF, ‘Girls’ education’ <https://www.unicef.org/education/girls-education> accessed 30 September 2021

[2]World Bank Group, ‘Girls’ Education’ <https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/girlseducation#1> accessed 30 September 2021

[3]ibid

[4]ibid

[5]Laura Paddison, ‘Educating girls: the key to tackling global poverty’ The Guardian (04 October 2017)

[6]World Bank Group ‘Girls’ Education’ (n 2)

[7]ActionAid, ‘Girls’ Education’< https://www.actionaid.org.uk/our-work/womens-rights/girls-education> accessed 30 September 2021

[8]ibid

[9]World Bank Group ‘Girls’ Education’ (n 2)

[10]Laura Paddison, ‘Educating girls: the key to tackling global poverty’ (n 5)

[11]World Bank Group ‘Girls’ Education’ (n 2)

[12]Laura Paddison, ‘Educating girls: the key to tackling global poverty’ (n 5)

[13]UNICEF, ‘Girls’ education’ (n 1)

[14]Malala Fund, ‘Girls’ education’ <https://malala.org/girls-education?sc=header> accessed 30 September 2021

[15]ActionAid, ‘Girls’ Education’ (n 7)

[16]UNICEF, ‘Girls’ education’ (n 1)

[17]ActionAid, ‘Girls’ Education’ (n 7)

[18]Theirworld, ‘Girls’ education’ <https://theirworld.org/explainers/girls-education> accessed 30 September 2021

[19]ActionAid, ‘Girls’ Education’ (n 7)

[20]Theirworld, ‘Girls’ education’ (n 18)

[21]ibid

[22]Malala Fund, ‘Girls’ education’ (n 14)

[23]Theirworld, ‘Girls’ education’ (n 18)

[24]United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development <https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal4> accessed 30 September 2021

[25]ActionAid, ‘Girls’ Education’ (n 7)

[26]Leah Rodriguez, ‘7 Obstacles to Girls’ Education and How to Overcome Them’ Global Citizen (24 September 2019)

[27]ActionAid, ‘Girls’ Education’ (n 7) and World Vision Canada, ‘Girls’ education: facts and how to help’ <https://www.worldvision.ca/stories/education/girls-education-facts-and-how-to-help> accessed 30 September 2021

[28]ActionAid, ‘Girls’ Education’ (n 7)

Child Marriage

Female child poverty in India

Marriage is a formally recognised legal union between two people in a relationship. However, many girls around the world are subject to marriage against their will at a very young age. Child marriage occurs where at least one party to the marriage is under 18 years old. It is a type of forced marriage as one party does not freely consent to the marriage and may be coerced into marrying[1]. Child marriage is a practice which disproportionality affects girls more than boys with one in five girls being married before they reach the age of 18 compared to one in thirty boys[2]. It is often the result of gender inequality.

According to UNICEF, the number of child marriages has decreased globally from one in four girls marrying almost ten years ago to around one in five girls marrying today[3]. Nevertheless, the practice is still a global issue which is prevalent in many areas around the world. If it continues, by 2030, almost one billion girls will be subject to marriage at a young age[4].

In this article, we will firstly look at child marriage in the context of human rights and will consider where the practice remains predominate in the world. We will then explore the main drivers behind child marriage. Next, we will discuss the negative consequences of child marriage on girls today. Lastly, we will examine what may help to eradicate the practice globally.

Child marriage and human rights

Treaties and conventions

Child marriage is a practice which significantly violates a person’s human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which paved the way for subsequent human rights treaties, was adopted in 1948 and states in Article 16 that ‘[m]arriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.’ This was later reinforced in Article 1 of the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages which came into force in 1964.

In 1979 the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted and according to Article 16, men and women have the same right to marriage. They also have ‘the same right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent’. Article 16 goes on to state that ‘[t]he betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage….’ Thus, it is clear that pressurising girls to marry against their will at a young age breaches the rights set out in these international treaties and conventions.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is the main international treaty concerning children’s rights, does not specifically address child marriage. However, other rights contained within this Convention are linked to the practice. These include the right to freedom of expression (Article 13) and protection from violence and abuse (Article 19).

Resolutions and goals

Over a number of years, the United Nations has adopted many resolutions aimed at tackling the problem of child marriage. In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution entitled ‘[s]trengthening efforts to prevent and eliminate child, early and forced marriage: challenges, achievements, best practices and implementation gaps’[5] and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has set the goal of eliminating all ‘harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation’ as one its seventeen Sustainable Development Goals[6].

Where is the practice prevalent?

Despite being a human rights violation, the practice still takes place in no less than 117 countries around the world[7]. According to UNICEF, the highest rate of child marriage is in sub-Saharan Africa where 35% of girls are subject to marriage before the age of 18. South Asia follows this where 30% of girls are subject to marriage before the age of 18. Other countries where the practice remains prevalent include Latin America and Caribbean (24%); the Middle East and North Africa (17%) and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (12%)[8].

The reasons behind child marriage

Two girls in India subject to child marriage

Female child poverty

Poverty is one of the main causes of child marriage globally. Girls residing in poorer families are twice as likely to be subject to marriage before they reach the age of 18 than girls residing in better-off families[9]. Girls are often seen as placing an economic burden upon families and are regarded as expensive to educate, feed and clothe[10]. Therefore, families, and sometimes the girls themselves, regard marriage as a way of becoming financially secure and escaping poverty[11]. Due to the significant issue of gender inequality which is prevalent in many countries, girls often lack education and are dependent upon men economically. Accordingly, they may regard marriage as the only way to become financially better-off.

Dowries and ‘bride prices’

Additionally, often a girl’s family pay a dowry to the groom’s family. Normally, the younger the bride, the smaller the dowry. This is an incentive for families to subject their daughters to marriage at a young age[12]. Similarly, in situations where a groom’s family pays the bride’s family a ‘bride price’, families suffering from economic hardship may choose to marry their daughter at a young age in return for an economic profit[13]. Sadly, due to COVID-19, there has been many school closures and the pandemic has had a significant economic impact on many families and communities. Consequently, many more girls are at risk of the practice[14].

Social and cultural norms

The most significant driver of child marriage is poverty, however, the practice also occurs due to social and cultural rules. Child marriage is a ‘norm’ in many communities and if families do not coincide with the practice, their own communities may regard them as outsiders or exclude them[15]. Therefore, many parents marry their daughters young to gain social status. Furthermore, due to widespread patriarchal systems, women are often subservient to men. In certain countries, girls who have relationships outside marriage or fall pregnant before marriage bring disgrace and shame to their families. Therefore, parents may decide to marry their daughters at a young age to protect them and their family’s social position within communities[16].

Negative effects and consequences

Sick child in poverty

Social and mental health problems

The practice has many negative consequences on the lives of girls around the world socially, mentally and physically. Girls who marry at a young age no longer attend school and this therefore hinders their access to education[17]. Furthermore, the practice has a significant impact on the mental health of many girls. When girls marry at a young age, they have to move in with their husband’s family and the husband’s family home may be in a different town. Thus, girls may no longer be able to maintain social connections with people outside their new families. Additionally, due to the dowry paid, a girl’s husband may be older than her. Accordingly, she may not share the same interests as her husband. Once married, girls may also have children. Consequently, they lose their adolescence, freedom to play and make friends which can result in isolation and depression[18].

Physical health problems

Furthermore, girls face many physical health problems as a result of the practice. Many families believe that marrying their daughters at a young age protects them from sexually transmitted infections. However, this is not necessarily true. Research has shown that in Kenya, girls who are married are 50% more likely to have HIV than girls who are not married[19] and in Zambia, this is 59%[20]. Furthermore, girls who are subject to marriage at a young age are often not ready to have sexual intercourse or reproduce[21]. Statistics have shown that girls who are aged between 10 and 14 are five to seven times more likely to pass away during childbirth and girls aged between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to pass away during childbirth[22].

Additionally, young girls often face prolonged childbirth resulting in obstetric fistula.  Commentators have stated that girls who have suffered from obstetric fistula experience incontinence, shame and other health issues[23]. Alarmingly, between 50,000 and 100,000 women suffer from obstetric fistula every year and according to the World Health Organization, over 2 million girls in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are living with this condition and it is not being treated[24].

What will eradicate the practice?

Increasing education

In order to tackle the problem of child marriage, there needs to be a focus on education. Girls subject to child marriage should develop knowledge about the consequences of marrying young. They also need to learn about the affect the practice may have on their futures. If there is legislation tackling the practice, girls need to know that this legislation exists. They should additionally become aware of who to get in touch with should they need help[25]. The parents of young girls also need to be educated about the risks of child marriage and should become aware of the fact that forcing their daughters to marry at a young age could be breaking the law. Furthermore, local community leaders need to be provided with education about the impact of child marriage. As role models, this could help to shift local community patterns and beliefs[26].

Working with local communities

Additionally, there needs to be more ground work within the local communities. Local governments need to enforce campaigns fighting against the practice. There also needs to be local media coverage and local NGOs must directly work with communities[27]. NGOs should also offer psychological assistance to victims[28]. It has been found that the programmes which are most successful at preventing child marriages are those which have given families financial incentives to keep girls at school, those which feed children during school (removing the burden of parents having to do this), and those which give employment opportunities to girls once they have finished school[29].

ActionAid, an international charity, has carried out significant work to end child marriage.Local ActionAid staff worked alongside a co-operative women’s group in India and ActionAid’s partner organisation called Swaraj to raise awareness about the impact of the practice, the importance of girls remaining in school, and girls’ rights to choose who and when they marry. In the community, young women used to marry at 15 or 16 years old. However, after raising awareness about the negative consequences of child marriage, the average age has increased. Now most women in the community do not marry until they are 22 years old[30].

Conclusion

Overall, it is clear that child marriage is still a widespread practice and it is a serious violation of a person’s human rights. Poverty primarily drives child marriage in many regions, however, it is also a deeply-rooted practice which occurs as a result of cultural and social norms. The practice negatively affects girls’ mental and physical health and wellbeing, their social life and their education. There needs to be more education along with cooperation with local governments, NGOs and the media to help raise awareness about the negative impact of child marriage on girls and eliminate the practice all together.

Footnotes

[1]United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, ‘Child and forced marriage, including in humanitarian settings’ https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/WRGS/Pages/ChildMarriage.aspx> accessed 13 May 2021

[2]UNICEF, ‘115 million boys and men around the world married as children – UNICEF’, <https://www.unicef.org.uk/press-releases/115-million-boys-and-men-around-the-world-married-as-children-unicef/> accessed 21 May 2021

[3]UNICEF, ‘Child marriage’ <https://www.unicef.org/protection/child-marriage> accessed 13 May 2021

[4]Women Alliance, ‘Child marriage – a practice driven by poverty’ (December 2016) <https://www.womenalliance.org/child-marriage-a-practice-driven-by-poverty> accessed 13 May 2021

[5]United Nations Human Rights Council, ‘Resolution Adopted by the Human Rights Council, Strengthening Efforts to Prevent and Eliminate Child, Early and Forced Marriage: Challenges, Achievements, Best Practices and Implementation Gaps (A/HRC/RES/24/23)’ 2013

[6]Goal 5.3, Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, ‘Sustainable Development Goals,’ Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform < https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300> accessed 13 May 2021

[7]Women Alliance, ‘Child marriage – a practice driven by poverty’ (n 4)

[8]UNICEF, ‘Child marriage is a violation of human rights, but is all too common’ (April 2020) <https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-protection/child-marriage/> accessed 13 May 2021

[9]ICRW, ‘Child marriage and poverty’ <https://www.icrw.org/files/images/Child-Marriage-Fact-Sheet-Poverty.pdf> accessed 13 May 2021

[10]Nour, Nawal M. “Child marriage: a silent health and human rights issue.” Reviews in obstetrics & gynecology vol. 2,1 (2009): 51-6

[11]Girls Not Brides, ‘About child marriage’ <https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/about-child-marriage/why-child-marriage-happens/> accessed 13 May 2021

[12]United Nations Population Fund, ‘Child marriage – Frequently Asked Questions’ (January 2020) <https://www.unfpa.org/child-marriage-frequently-asked-questions> accessed 13 May 2021

[13]ibid

[14]United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, ‘Child and forced marriage, including in humanitarian settings’ (n 1)

[15]Women Alliance, ‘Child marriage – a practice driven by poverty’ (n 4)

[16]Girls Not Brides, ‘About child marriage’ (n 11)

[17]Women Alliance, ‘Child marriage – a practice driven by poverty’ (n 4)

[18]Nour, Nawal M. “Child marriage: a silent health and human rights issue.” Reviews in obstetrics & gynecology vol. 2,1 (2009): 51-6

[19]ibid

[20]ibid

[21]Women Alliance, ‘Child marriage – a practice driven by poverty’ (n 4)

[22]Nour, Nawal M. “Child marriage: a silent health and human rights issue.” Reviews in obstetrics & gynecology vol. 2,1 (2009): 51-6

[23]Nyasha Chingono, My dreams were destroyed’: poverty costs child brides dear in Zimbabwe’ The Guardian (04 January 2019)

[24]World Health Organization, ‘Obstetric fistula’ (19 February 2018) <https://www.who.int/news-room/facts-in-pictures/detail/10-facts-on-obstetric-fistula> last accessed 21 May 2021

[25]Plan International, ‘Ending Child Marriage’ <https://plan-uk.org/about/our-work/child-marriage> accessed 24 May 2021

[26]ibid

[27]Women Alliance, ‘Child marriage – a practice driven by poverty’ (n 4)

[28]ibid

[29]Nour, Nawal M. “Child marriage: a silent health and human rights issue.” Reviews in obstetrics & gynecology vol. 2,1 (2009): 51-6

[30]ActionAid, ‘Child Marriage’ < https://www.actionaid.org.uk/our-work/womens-rights/child-marriage> last accessed 24 May 2021