"The health of adolescent girls is everyone's business. We all need to step up to the plate to embrace this ambitious agenda."—Melinda Gates.
“Loving someone liberates the lover as well as the beloved. And that kind of love comes with age.” — Maya Angelou
Child marriage is a marriage or similar union, formal or informal, between a child under a certain age – typically age 18 – and an adult or another child. The vast majority of child marriages are between a girl and a man, and are rooted in gender inequality.
Although in most countries, the age of majority otherwise known as legal adulthood and marriageable age are usually designated at age 18, both vary across countries, and therefore the marriageable age may be older or younger in a given country. It is worthy to note however that where the age is set at 18 years, there are countries in which cultural traditions override legislation and many jurisdictions permit earlier marriage with parental consent or in exceptional circumstances, such as teenage pregnancy.
However, there are three terms that are different but are sometimes used interchangeably: - Child Marriage, Forced Marriage and Arranged Marriage. Child marriage is different from Forced Marriage and Arranged Marriage. Child marriage is any formal marriage or informal union where one or both people(rarely) are under 18 years old.
A Forced Marriage is where one or both people do not consent to the marriage and pressure, or abuse is used. Pressure can include threats, physical or sexual violence, and financial pressure. At this juncture, it is safe to say that most Child Marriages are Forced Marriages because a child cannot provide informed consent and Child Marriages are therefore a violation of children's rights. This is different from an Arranged Marriage, where both people have consented to the union but feel free to refuse if they want to.
Child marriages also affects boys, but to a lesser degree than girls. According to this article: - UNICEF (2015), 'A profile of child marriage in Africa', in the Central African Republic, the country where boys are most likely to be married in childhood, the levels of Child Marriage among girls are still more than twice those seen among boys.
The incidence of child marriage has been falling in most parts of the world. Data from UNICEF in 2018 showed that about 21 percent of young women worldwide (aged 20 to 24) were married as children; this is a 25 percent decrease from 10 years previously. The countries with the highest observed rates of child marriages (below the age of 18) were Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Nepal, all of which had rates above 50%. Niger, Chad, Bangladesh, Mali, and Ethiopia were the countries with child marriage rates greater than 20% below the age of 15, according to 2003–2009 surveys. Each year, an estimated 12 million girls globally are being married under the age of 18.
The Historical Background
Child marriages have been common throughout history and continue to be widespread particularly in developing countries such as parts of Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. However, even in developed countries, legal exceptions still allow child marriage, including exceptions in 46 US states.
In the United States, only four states (Delaware, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania) have taken the initiative to ban child marriage with no exceptions, leaving 46 states that allow child marriage to take place in varying degrees. This is because there is no overarching federal government regulation on the issue, allowing each individual state to set their standards regarding child marriage.
Between 200 BC and 700 AD, women and men had the ‘freedom' to choose whoever they wanted to marry. Arguably, starting from the 20th century, more women started attending colleges, universities and the society realized that marriage needed maturity. This was especially in the western world.
Girl brides became younger towards the medieval period, and it became increasingly common for girls as 6 or 8 to be married as it was then known in the Indian society. Parents decided on the marriages of their children at a very early age although the daughter stayed with her parents until she reached the age of puberty.
In Africa and in some third world countries, there are various reasons why child marriage still prevails. For instance, in the Northern part of Nigeria, under the Sharia law, which is the Islamic law adopted by this region, it is legal for families to not only betroth their girls but also to marry them off to men who are old enough to be their fathers.
Where does child marriage happen?
According to the ActionAid UK website, child brides can be found in every region in the world, from the Middle East to Latin America, South Asia to Europe. It is a global problem.
In the UK, it was reported that the Home Office's Forced Marriage Unit supported over 1,400 suspected cases of forced child marriage in 2016.
However, the ActionAid UK website further reveals that rates of child marriage are most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa – e.g. in countries such as Niger (76%) and Central African Republic (68%), and in South Asia – in countries such as Bangladesh (52%), and India (47%).
The website further states that in many communities across these regions, girls are being violently abducted before being forced to marry their captors, usually many years older than them.
In many cultures, tradition plays a significant role in the perpetuation of child marriage. These practices have spanned many generations up until the 21st century. This practice includes giving the girl child in marriage since it is believed that every girl will eventually end up in her husband’s house.
In some countries, taking care of the girl child is seen as expensive. This is because the more attention and funds needed to be paid to taking care of the girl child is more than that of the boy child.
As a result of this, some very poor families give their girls in marriage to reduce the expenses needed for her adult years. Poor families that have many children marry their daughters off early so that they have one less mouth to feed.
The bride price is what the groom's family pays the bride's family for the girl. The bride price often reflects the value of the bride, furthering the concept of girls as a ‘commodity’.
Underlying child marriage are deep-rooted patriarchal beliefs, the low value placed on girls, and the desire to control women, especially girls' sexuality.
Around the world, social values and norms expect girls to become wives and mothers, and in poorer communities with limited opportunities for education and work, most times, the alternatives are limited. Even if opportunities are available, social norms that value boys over girls and support rigid gender roles mean parents might not think it worthwhile to invest in their daughter’s education.
Female genital mutilation, which is considered essential for marriage in many communities, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, is closely linked to child marriage. The social stigma of not following tradition ensures the practice continues.
Control over sexuality
In some African societies, the parents believe that once the girl is married off early, this will prevent her from being promiscuous or wayward. The families see marriage as being directly linked to family honor, status and discipline.
The Effects of Child Marriage
Child marriage is a violation of girls’ rights. Most of these girls do not have the chance to go to school, and they can’t live independent lives that will transform into good adulthood.
Vulnerability to Violence
Domestic violence is more prevalent in child marriage. Power imbalance is further intensified between these girls and their spouses because more often than not, the girls are given out in marriage to older men.
Many are subjected to rape and abuse. They have limited means to get support or share what they are going through due to the isolation from friends and family.
Health and Livelihoods
Due to the freedom taken away from these girls, they are not in a position to influence decisions over safe sex and family planning methods. Therefore, with limited education and decision-making power, these girls are at the high risk of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV.
They also commonly face discrimination in their community and lack access to sexual and reproductive rights. The various risks of early childbearing include (but are not limited to): increased chances of stillbirth, rise in infant mortality, malnourished children and disabling complications for the mother such as obstetric fistula.
According to ActionAid UK, globally, 16 million girls aged between 15 and 19, and 1 million girls under the age of 15, give birth each year. 70,000 girls die during pregnancy and childbirth. This makes complications during pregnancy and childbirth the second highest cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide. Furthermore, complications in childbirth are heightened for girls who have also had female genital mutilation.
Inability to Complete Education
The completion of education for the girls is usually brought to an end once they are married. The abrupt end brought to their education leads to the loss of chance to gain the knowledge and skills needed to secure a good job and providing for themselves and their children. In most cases, girls who have little or no education are more likely to be married than girls who have secondary schooling.
Children should be taught about their rights in schools. Even when they cannot fight for themselves yet, they can at least be aware of their rights. International organisations and non-governmental organisations should invest heavily in preventing child marriage. Governments of countries where child marriage is rampant should step up their game in curtailing this act. The laws against this act should be implemented across all the states or regions of these countries.
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“---.” Center for Global Development | Ideas to Action, www.cgdev.org/publication/start-girl-new-agenda-global-health. Accessed 21 June 2022.
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NHS website. “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).” Nhs.Uk, 18 Nov. 2021, www.nhs.uk/conditions/female-genital-mutilation-fgm.
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