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Child Marrriage: Facts, Causes and Consequences

Discrimination, Sexual Abuse, Trafficking and Repression

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (among other charters and conventions) all directly or indirectly forbid the degrading and mistreatment of girls inherent in child marriage.

Nevertheless, child marriage is common in many parts opf the world, claiming millions of victims annually--and hundreds of thousands of injuries or death resulting from abuse or complications from pregnancy and childbirth.

Facts About Child Marriage

  • According to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), 100 million girls will be married before the age of 18 in the coming decade. Most will be in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asian Subcontinent (Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh). In Niger, for example, 77% of women in their early 20s were married as children. In Bangladesh, 65% were. Child marriage also occurs in parts of the Middle East, including Yemen and the rural Maghreb.

    In the United States, child marriage is still permissible in some states, with parental or judicial consent.

  • Globally, according to UNICEF, 36% of women aged 20-24 were married or in a union, forced or consensual, before they'd reached 18.

  • An estimated 14 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth each year. They are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than women in their 20s.

  • Girls who marry between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times as likely to die during pregnancy6 or childbirth as women in their early 20s.

Causes of Child Marriage

Child marriage has many causes: cultural, social, economic and religious. In many cases, a mixture of these causes results in the imprisonment of children in marriages without their consent.

Poverty: Poor families sell their children into marriage either to settle debts or to make some money and escape the cycle of poverty. Child marriage fosters poverty, however, as it ensures that girls who marry young will not be properly educated or take part in the workforce.

"Protecting" the girl's sexuality: In certain cultures, marrying a girl young presumes that the girl's sexuality, therefore the girl's family's honor, will be "protected" but ensuring that the girl marries as a virgin. The imposition of family honor on a girl's individuality, in essence robbing the girl of her honor and dignity, undermines the credibility of family honor and instead underscores the presumed protection's actual aim: to control the girl.

Gender discrimination: Child marriage is a product of cultures that devalue women and girls and discriminate against them. "The discrimination," according to a UNICEF report on "Child Marriage and the Law," "often manifests itself in the form of domestic violence, marital rape, and deprivation of food, lack of access to information, education, healthcare, and general impediments to mobility."

Inadequate laws: Many countries such as Pakistan have laws against child marriage. The laws are not enforced. In Afghanistan, a new law was written into the country's code enabling Shiite, or Hazara, communities to impose their own form of family law--including permitting child marriage.

Trafficking: Poor families are tempted to sell their girls not just into marriage, but into prostitution, as the transaction enables large sums of money to change hands.

Individual Rights Denied by Child Marriage

The Convention on the Rights of the Child are designed to guarantee certain individual rights--which are abused by early marriage. Rights undermined or lost by children forced to marry early are:

  • The right to an education.

  • The right to be protected from physical and mental violence, injury or abuse, including sexual abuse, rape and sexual exploitation.

  • The right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.

  • The right to rest and leisure, and to participate freely in cultural life.

  • The right to not be separated from parents against the child's will.

  • The right to protection against all forms of exploitation affecting any aspect of the child’s welfare.

  • The right to eventual employment.

Case Study: A Child Bride Speaks

The 2006 Nepal Report on Child Marriage includes the following testimony from a child bride:

"I was married to a nine-year-old boy when I was three. At that point of time, I was unaware of marriages. I don't even remember my marriage event. I just remember that as I was too young and was unable to walk and they had to carry me and bring me over to their place. Getting married at an early age, I was destined to suffer a lot of hardships. I had to carry water in a small clay-pot in the mornings. I had to sweep and swap the floor everyday.

"Those were the days when I wanted to eat good food and wear pretty clothes. I used to feel very hungry, but I had to be satisfied with the amount of food that I was provided. I never got to eat enough. I sometimes secretly ate corns, soybeans, etc that used to grow in the field. And if I was caught eating, my inlaws and husband would beat me up accusing me of stealing from the field and eating. Sometimes the villagers used to give me food and if my husband and in-laws found out, they used to beat me up accusing me of stealing food from the house. They used to give me one black blouse and a cotton sari1 torn into two pieces. I had to wear these for two years.

"Never did I get other accessories like petticoats, belts etc. When my saris got torn, I used to patch them up and continue wearing them. My husband married three times after me. At present, he lives with his youngest wife. Since I married at an early age, early child-delivery was inevitable. As a result, I now have severe back problems. I used to weep a lot and consequently, I faced problems with my eyes and had to undergo an eye operation. I often think that if I had the power to think like I do now, I would never go to that house.

"I also wish I had not given birth to any children. Retrospective sufferings make me wish not to see my husband again. Nevertheless, I do not want him to die because I don't want to lose my marital status."

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