Esther, a thirteen-year-old Ethiopian girl, is starting a new school year. She notices that half of the girls who were in her class last year have dropped out. Their parents decided that they should get married instead of continuing their education. Esther is afraid that the same thing will happen to her soon because her older sister was also married at thirteen, but she wishes she could stay in school with her younger brother.
Child marriage occurs today in every region of the world, despite laws that set the minimum legal age for marriage at 18. The practice is most common in poor and rural areas, and it disproportionately affects young women. Although the practice is traditional, it has serious social, economic, and health consequences for many young girls and women.
Definition of Child Marriage
According to the United Nation’s Children Fund, or UNICEF, child marriage refers to the formal marriage or informal coupling in which one or both of the people are under 18 years old.
How it Works
In a majority of cases of child marriage, an underage girl is married to an older man, although this is not universally true. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tens of thousands of girls become child brides daily. UNICEF reported that in sub-Saharan Africa alone, 35% of young women were married before they turned 18. Many of these girls don’t finish their education, hindering their future opportunities.
Additionally, girls in child marriages are especially vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, sexually transmitted infections, and complications or death related to pregnancy and childbirth. According to WHO, the leading cause of death for girls and women between 15 and 19 is childbirth and pregnancy complications. Furthermore, children born as a result of child marriages are also more vulnerable to complications of early labor. They may also suffer from health issues because their young mothers lack knowledge about breastfeeding or nutrition. Girls and women are often unable to leave these marriages, even when abusive situations arise, because they lack resources, legal and social support, and skills or education to support themselves.
For centuries, it has been commonplace for a girl’s family, particularly her father, to decide who and when she should marry. The practices of dowries, a payment to a prospective husband, and bride prices, a payment to the bride’s family, are just as old. Traditional patriarchal values of virginity, chastity, and family honor are associated with these practices.
As the world has started to pay more attention to human rights, and particularly the rights of women and children, it has become clear that these traditions are fueled by patriarchal ideas, fear of financial insecurity and social ostracism, and poverty. Several of the global human rights efforts and agreements have sections that can be applied to child marriage. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated in 1948 that marriage between “men and women of full age” is only acceptable with “full and free consent.” Children younger than 18 are considered incapable of giving consent, and most likely don’t even understand the term. Furthermore, the Convention on the Rights of the Child lists the rights of education and protection from violence and abuse, rights which these unions put into direct jeopardy.
Due to global efforts, child marriage is diminishing everywhere—the likelihood of child marriage for a girl dropped from around 50% to under 30% in South Asia over the past decade, according to UNICEF. However, just because the rates are diminishing doesn’t mean they’re insignificant. Child marriage is still widespread, and, in some communities, practically universal. There is still a lot of work necessary to end the harmful practice of child marriage.
Empowering girls is essential in ending child marriage and saving women from cycles of poverty and inequity. Breaking these cycles will require the complex work of tackling poverty and injustice, and making it an expectation that women and girls have the right to make their own decisions. Three activist teenagers from Nigeria started a nonprofit organization called Never Your Fault to fight against child marriage and sexual violence in their country. You can help end child marriage by supporting activists like these who are making a difference in your community and around the world.