Summary:Marriage before the age of 18 is a reality for many young women. According to UNICEF's estimates, over 64 million women aged 20–24 years were married or in union before the age of 18.
Factors that influence child marriage rates include: the state of the country's civil registration system, which provides proof of age for children; the existence of an adequate legislative framework with an accompanying enforcement mechanism to address cases of child marriage; and the existence of customary or religious laws that condone the practice.
A violation of human rights
In many parts of the world parents encourage the marriage of their daughters while they are still children in hopes that the marriage will benefit the children both financially and socially and relieve financial burdens on the family. In actuality, child marriage is a violation of human rights, compromising girls’ development and often resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, with little education and poor vocational training reinforcing the gendered nature of poverty. The right to 'free and full' consent to a marriage is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – with the recognition that consent cannot be 'free and full' when one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner.
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women mentions the right to protection from child marriage in article 16, which states: "The 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...." While marriage is not considered directly in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, child marriage is linked to other rights – such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to protection from all forms of abuse, and the right to be protected from harmful traditional practices – and is frequently addressed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Other international agreements related to child marriage are the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.
Child marriage was also identified by the Pan-African Forum against the Sexual Exploitation of Children as a type of commercial sexual exploitation of children. Young married girls are a unique, though often invisible, group. Required to perform large amounts of domestic work, under pressure to demonstrate fertility, and responsible for raising children while still children themselves, married girls and child mothers face constrained decision-making and reduced life choices. Boys are also affected by child marriage but the issue impacts girls in far larger numbers and with more intensity.
Cohabitation – when a couple lives together as if married – raises the same human rights concerns as marriage. Where a girl lives with a man and takes on the role of caregiver for him, the assumption is often that she has become an adult woman, even if she has not yet reached the age of 18. Additional concerns due to the informality of the relationship – for example, inheritance, citizenship and social recognition – might make girls in informal unions vulnerable in different ways from those in formally recognized marriages.
Risk factors for child marriage
The literature suggests that many factors interact to place a child at risk of marriage. Poverty, protection of girls, family honour and the provision of stability during unstable social periods are considered as significant factors in determining a girl's risk of becoming married while still a child. Jenson and Thornton found little overall change in the average age at marriage for age cohorts born between 1950 and 1970 in most regions, as well as little change in the incidence of child marriage. Focusing primarily on Benin, Colombia, India and Turkey, Jenson and Thornton noted strong correlations between a woman's age at marriage and the level of education she achieves, the age at which she gives birth to her first child and the age of her husband. Women who married at younger ages were more likely to believe that it is sometimes acceptable for a husband to beat his wife and were more likely to experience domestic violence themselves. The age gap between partners is thought to contribute to these abusive power dynamics and to increase the risk of untimely widowhood, although Westoff notes that older husbands may be better providers for the household.
Closely related to the issue of child marriage is the age at which girls become sexually active. Women who are married before the age of 18 tend to have more children than those who marry later in life. According to Bhattacharya, 97 per cent of women surveyed in India in 1992–1993 did not use any contraception before their first child was born. However, the Population Council and UNICEF found that, in Pakistan, a substantial number of young married women indicated an interest in the use of contraception in the future. Pregnancy-related deaths are known to be a leading cause of mortality for both married and unmarried girls between the ages of 15 and 19, particularly among the youngest of this cohort.
Protection from HIV/AIDS is another reason for child marriage. Parents seek to marry off their girls to protect their health and their honour, and men often seek younger women as wives as a means to avoid infection. In some contexts, however, the evidence does not support this hypothesis and practice. Bhattacharya found that in India, 75 per cent of people living with HIV/AIDS are married. In fact, the demand to reproduce and the stigma associated with safe-sex practices lead to very low condom use among married couples worldwide, and heterosexual married women who report monogamous sexual relationships with their husbands are increasingly becoming a high-risk group for HIV/AIDS.
Strategies to end the practice of child marriage
Evidence shows that the more education a girl receives, the less likely she is to marry as a child. Improving access to education for both girls and boys and eliminating gender gaps in education are important strategies in ending the practice of child marriage. Legislative, programmatic and advocacy efforts to make education free and compulsory, as well as to expand Education for All programming beyond the primary level, are indicated by the strong significance of educational attainment in terms of reducing the number of girls who are married. Increasing the level of compulsory education may be one tactic to prolong the period of time when a girl is unavailable for marriage.
It is also important to capitalize on the window of opportunity created by the increasing gap in time between the onset of puberty and the time of marriage by providing substantive skills-enhancing programmes and opportunities. There is a need to develop methods to protect girls at risk of child marriage and to address the concerns of girls and women who are already married by ensuring the fulfillment of their right to a full education and providing them with life skills-based training to ensure that they can earn a livelihood.
Efforts are also required to protect girls who are in union. Decreasing the pressure on young women to conceive through education and advocacy on the dangers of early motherhood should be considered. Similar consideration should be given to ways to improve access to effective contraceptive methods.
Services for survivors of domestic violence should be accessible. Outreach efforts should consider focusing on women who were married before age 18 as potentially in need of assistance. Mapping child marriage levels within countries may be a useful practice for programmatic purposes when determining where to launch new prevention campaigns. It can also be used to track future progress by comparing child marriage levels at different points in time.
Further data collection and research is also required to explore the impact of child marriage on boys and men. The demand-and-supply relationship of child marriage should be qualitatively explored to illuminate dynamics, such as the reasons why parents marry off their children and why men prefer younger brides, in order to inform programming strategies.
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Westoff, C., ‘Trends in Marriage and Early Childbearing in Developing Countries’, DHS Comparative Reports, No. 5, ORC Macro, Calverton, Md., USA, 2003.
Bhattacharya, G., ‘Sociocultural and Behavioural Contexts in Heterosexual Married Couples in India: Challenges to HIV prevention programmes’, Health Education and Behavior, vol. 31, no. 1, 2004, pp. 101-117.
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