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. 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. 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. 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.
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’ 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.
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. 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%).
The reasons behind 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. Girls are often seen as placing an economic burden upon families and are regarded as expensive to educate, feed and clothe. Therefore, families, and sometimes the girls themselves, regard marriage as a way of becoming financially secure and escaping poverty. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
Negative effects and consequences
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. 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.
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 and in Zambia, this is 59%. Furthermore, girls who are subject to marriage at a young age are often not ready to have sexual intercourse or reproduce. 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.
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. 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.
What will eradicate the practice?
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. 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.
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. NGOs should also offer psychological assistance to victims. 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Goal 5.3, Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, ‘Sustainable Development Goals,’ Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform < https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300> accessed 13 May 2021
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
Plan International, ‘Ending Child Marriage’ <https://plan-uk.org/about/our-work/child-marriage> accessed 24 May 2021
ActionAid, ‘Child Marriage’ < https://www.actionaid.org.uk/our-work/womens-rights/child-marriage> last accessed 24 May 2021