Eliminating Child Marriages Should Be a Key Political Priority

Photo courtesy Plan International.

As the world celebrates the first International Day of the Girl Child on October 11th 2012, eliminating child marriages should be a key political priority for governments to protect the rights of girls and women, say Human Rights Watch. Nearly half of the world’s child brides live in South Asia.

Child marriages occur when one of the parties is below 18 years of age and are a violation of human rights that disproportionately affects girls. Child marriages also violate other human rights; including to education, freedom from violence, reproductive rights, access to reproductive and sexual health care, employment, freedom of movement, and the right to consensual marriage.

In 2005, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that over 100 million girls would get married over the next decade. The UNFPA will present new data on prevalence of child marriage worldwide at the United Nations on October 11th 2012.

According to the organization Girls Not Brides, every year, an estimated 10 million girls aged under 18 are married worldwide with little or no say in the matter. That’s more than 25,000 girls every day, or 19 every minute. In the developing world, one in seven girls is married before her 15th birthday and some child brides are as young as eight or nine.

In addition:

  • One in three girls in the developing world is likely to be married before age 18. At the current rate, 100 million of these girls will be brides in the next decade.
  • Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, and girls age 15-18 are twice as likely to die.
  • The children of girl brides are 60 percent more likely to die by their first birthday than children with mothers over age 19.
  • Child brides usually drop out of school, and so are deprived of the education and economic opportunities that could help lift them and their families out of poverty.

Neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers, these girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty.

“The first global Day of the Girl should usher in a renewed global commitment to put a stop to marriages of children below age eighteen,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should work harder to prevent child marriage and to increase awareness of the harm that they cause.”

Human Rights Watch has documented human rights violations against married girls and boys in several countries in Asia and Africa. The testimonies of the children interviewed illustrate the profoundly detrimental impact of child marriage on their physical and mental well-being, education, and children’s ability to live free of violence. The consequences of child marriage do not end when child brides reach adulthood, but often follow them throughout their lives as they struggle with the health effects of getting pregnant too young and too often, their lack of education and economic independence, domestic violence, and marital rape.

Child marriage almost inevitably disrupts girls’ education and exposes them to domestic violence and girls who marry young are more susceptible to early pregnancies and reproductive health complications associated with early pregnancy.

Governments can mitigate some of the worst abuses linked to child marriage by setting and enforcing age limits for marriage, establishing and enforcing compulsory marriage registers, and prosecuting perpetrators of forced marriage. Many, however, fail to do so.

Even where countries do attempt to discourage child marriage, they may fail to protect the rights of girls.

In order to effectively address the problem of child marriages, Human Rights Watch recommends that states:

  • Enact legislation that sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, and include requirements for the verification of the full and meaningful consent of both spouses.
  • Take the necessary legislative and other measures to ensure that anyone who intentionally forces an adult or a child to enter into a marriage is appropriately penalized, and that marriages concluded under force may be voided, annulled, or dissolved without undue burden placed on the victim(s).
  • Safeguard by law a victim’s right to seek financial compensation after voiding, annulling, divorcing, or otherwise dissolving the marriage and protect the rights of children born out of such a marriage.
  • Provide training to law enforcement officials on gender discrimination and violence against women, including investigations into child marriages.
  • Ensure that government or nongovernment efforts at discouraging child marriages do not directly or indirectly punish victims of child marriages by excluding them from health, education, employment or other services that protect, fulfill, and promote their human rights.
  • Recognize marital rape as a criminal offense.
  • Increase and improve access to reproductive healthcare for all girls and women in rural and urban areas by allocating greater resources from national health expenditure and more personnel.
  • Ensure that access to emergency obstetric care, including monitoring of labor, trained birth attendants, newborn care, and contraception, is available to all girls and women in rural and urban areas.
  • Raise awareness among health workers and the public on the importance of registering births, including home deliveries.
  • Provide continuing formal education and vocational training opportunities for married girls and women.

“Child marriage is almost always also forced marriage. It disrupts girls’ education and exposes them to domestic violence and preventable health crises,” said Ms. Gerntholtz. “By working to tackle and end the marriage of children, the UN and global governments will help protect the rights of women and girls worldwide.”

“‘People don’t seem to talk much about Child Brides. Perhaps it seems to be a family issue, and not a public one, or a cultural issue, and not one of the human rights. But we cannot stay silent,” said Desmond Tutu.

At the Clinton Global Initiative 2012 in September, President Bill Clinton described child marriage as  “a form of slavery.”

In this new video from Girls Not Brides, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu of The Elders call on people around the world to action: to end child marriage in a single generation.

Bringing together Mary Robinson, renowned human rights champion and member of The Elders, Christy Turlington Burns, US super-model and maternal health advocate, and young activists against child marriage, Girls Not Brides will host a live online discussion on what it will take to end child marriage in a generation. You can join from anywhere around the world on October 11th at 15:00 GMT time.

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