November 14th, 2014
By Carolina Rocha da Silva
Every year, about 13,5 millions girls are married whilst they are still children.[i] Early marriage is a horrible violation of human rights and an impediment to security and development, but parents in developing countries often view it as a protection mechanism for their children. Marriage is linked to gaining a home, food and security from sexual violence. Therefore, in conflict situations where security and socio-economic threats increase, the rate of child marriage rises exponentially. However, child marriage is no protection. Instead, it causes important physical, psychological, and socio-economic threats. Child marriage augments the insecurity level for the brides or grooms and perpetuates the poverty cycle.
Early marriage disproportionally affects girls in greater number and with more intensity than boys. UNICEF estimates that in 2013, 730 million girls were married before the age of 18 while only 156 million boys were married before reaching adulthood[ii]. Therefore, this article will mainly focus on female victims of child marriage.
What is early marriage and who is affected?
Globally, there is no consensus on the age of adulthood and therefore on an acceptable threshold for marriage. While some cultures consider 18 as the age of adulthood, others view older teenagers – between 16 and 18-years old – as adults already. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women set the threshold for legal marriage at 18. However, as the age of adulthood varies according to different cultures, in some countries children can get voluntarily married before that age if authorities grant permission. Therefore, child marriage will be considered in this article as a premature marital union, frequently non-voluntary.
Globally, the practice of child marriage is slowly declining: while in 1985 33% of the girls were married before the age of 18 and 12% before their 15th birthday, in 2010 this number lowered to 26% and 8% respectively.[iii] However, more needs be done to eliminate this atrocious practice. The highest rates of child marriage can be found in South Asia and West and Central Africa, with 56% and 46% of women aged 20 to 49 having been in union before the age of 18. As shown in table 3, Niger, Chad, Bangladesh, Guinea and the Central African Republic have the highest early marriage rates.
Figure 1. Percentage of women aged 20 to 24 years who were married or in union before ages 15 and 18.[iv]
Figure 2. Countries with highest rates of women 20-24 years-old who were married or in union before they were 15 years-old and before they were 18 years-old.[v]
Additionally, early marriage mainly concerns girls with a low level of education, from poor households, living in rural areas. As shown in the following table, 63% of women with no education, 54% of the girls from the poorest quintile, and 44% of rural girls are wedded before the age of 18.[vi]
Figure 3. Variables of women aged 20 to 24 in developing countries married before 18.[vii]
Does conflict exacerbate child marriage?
Children living in fragile states are particularly affected by early marriage. As represented by the next figure, the 25 countries with the highest rates of early marriage are fragile states, having suffered either from conflict or from natural disasters.[viii]
Figure 4. The percentage of women married before the age of 18 in fragile countries.[ix]
The rate of child marriage is exponentially augmented by conflicts. As Liesl Gerntholtz from Human Rights Watch argues, early weddings in conflict zones are more common, more acceptable and involve increasingly younger children.[x] During the Liberian civil war, a great number of parents facing economic destitution pushed their daughters into marriage at very young ages, reported the International Rescue Committee.[xi] A parallel situation is currently taking place in Jordan, with Syrian child refugees: according to UNICEF the rate of early marriages among these children has increased to 12% in 2011, 25% in 2013 and 31% in the first quarter of 2014.[xii] In fact, almost 1/3 of refugee marriages in Jordan involve a girl under 18, and this only refers to registered marriages. In addition to this increase, marriages involve younger spouses. In 2012, 48% of the Syrian child brides wedded men ten or more years older than them.[xiii]
Child marriage as a protection mechanism in conflict zones
Directly or indirectly, child marriage is aggravated by conflicts. On the one hand, abduction and forceful marriage of young girls becomes a common practice in some areas, such as during the Sierra Leone civil war from 1991 to 2002. On the other hand, the resulting breakdown of political, socio-economic, and security institutions creates a propitious environment for child marriage. As the government is unable to provide public security or public services, many parents assume that ‘they [their parents] think the only way for their children to have a decent life is to marry her off at a young age. They do it with a heavy heart, they don’t really want to marry them off at all’.[xiv] Child marriage in conflict zones is therefore often a protection mechanism.
Almost every country in the world has domestic legislation outlawing child marriage. However, with collapsing political, legislative and judicial institutions, there is no legislative enforcement and protection. Therefore, customary law, traditional leaders and cultural practices become the only consistent source of authority, ensuring that early marriages and other practices such as Female Genital Mutilation continue to thrive as prestigious traditions. If defied, the family will face shame, social stigma, and isolation.[xv] In Somalia, a collapsed state struck by conflict, the legal minimum age of marriage for girls is 18, yet weak enforcement by the government, entrenched tradition and forced marriages by insurgency groups have increased the rate of early marriage to 45%.[xvi]
For every three years that a country is affected by major violence, poverty reduction lags behind 2.7 percentage points[xvii]. On the one hand, parents wed their children to protect them from hunger and malnutrition, as World Vision reports from Somaliland, Bangladesh, and Niger.[xviii] On the other hand, marriage eases the financial load of caring for a girl, who is not considered a viable wage earner and the payment of a dowry can ease the family’s financial hardships. Effectively, more than half of girls in the poorest quintile of households assessed were child brides.[xix] Malawi, Niger, Madagascar, Ethiopia, CAR, and Guinea are among the top twenty countries with the highest rates of child marriage and also among the top ten countries with the lowest GDP in the world in 2013.[xx]
In Jordan, the rise of early marriages amongst Syrian refugees is in part a response to rising living costs and to a limited access to jobs and cash assistance. Therefore, Syrian households seek to decrease the number of family members.[xxi] As Orla Guerin reports, poverty is forcing families to effectively sell their daughters to much older men, even creating an organised trade of young girls.[xxii]
Exposure to violent conflict has a negative effect on the enrolment of girls in schools as the dropout rates are high and the chances for new students to enter a classroom are low.[xxiii] Schools, if not destroyed, have a diminishing number of staff and material and thus the quality of education decreases. Moreover, schools or the path to school can become physically dangerous to children. Prior to the conflict, more than 95% of Syrian children were enrolled in primary school. However, today only a small proportion of the Syrian refugees attends schools: in Jordan, only about half and in Lebanon, less than 20%.[xxiv]
The honour of girls is considered to be threatened if they are neither busy in school nor in the household. Therefore, girls with no education are three times more likely to marry before their 18th birthday compared to those who graduate from secondary school or higher.[xxv]
In conflicts, children have been deliberately targeted with torture, rape or mass rape, forced prostitution, forced marriage, forced termination of pregnancy, and mutilation.[xxvi] Fear of suffering, of loosing the girls’ virginity, of unwanted pre-marital pregnancies and of the resultant shame and dishonour are seen by parents as legitimate reasons for early marriage.[xxvii]
In Jordanian refugee camps, parents frequently choose to marry off their daughters to safeguard them from the threat of rape and sexual violence. ‘Early marriage is a brutal curtailment of childhood and a violation of children’s rights, yet many parents around the world believe it is the best possible way to ensure their daughters are looked after’, said Hannah Stevenson from World Vision.[xxviii]
A cruel irony: the devastating effects of child marriage
In cruel irony, child marriage creates similar or higher levels of insecurity than it prevents. The negative health, psychological, and social consequences of early weddings are exacerbated by the poor conditions and inadequate support systems that characterize conflict zones. Therefore, a cycle is created where child marriage is a coping mechanism for insecurity, but leads to intensified levels of insecurity.
Poor education, illiteracy, malnutrition or hunger, and perpetuation of the poverty cycle are all cited as consequences of child marriage.[xxix] As brides or grooms take up their responsibilities in the marital home, they have to leave schooling. Therefore, the children’s wage-earning opportunities are limited as she/he is left without the necessary skills, knowledge, and social networks. Wives become extremely dependent on their husbands. As a consequence, the family’s low societal status is maintained, hindering the development of the communities.
In low and middle-income countries, early childbearing is the leading cause of mortality for girls aged 15-19.[xxx] Despite this, married young girls experience intense pressure to bear children in order to prove their fertility and value. Also, perinatal deaths are 50% higher among babies born to mothers under the age of 20.[xxxi] Such deaths and debilitating conditions could be prevented with access to essential maternity and basic healthcare services that, unfortunately, are weak or non-existent in conflict zones.
The health consequences of sexual activity at young age can also be catastrophic for young children, especially where access to health services and contraceptives is limited. Recently, an eight-year-old Yemeni bled to death from internal injuries sustained during intercourse with her forty-year-old husband.[xxxii] Child brides also face a higher risk of contracting HIV – in Sub-Saharan Africa, 2 to 6 times higher – as they often marry an older men who has had sexual intercourse with several other women in the past.[xxxiii]
Perpetuation of sexual and domestic violence
Although many parents believe that marriage will protect their children from sexual and gendered-based violence, the stress caused by the insecurity, immaturity, and lack of negotiating power leave the girls more exposed to domestic violence and rape than imagined.[xxxiv] Moreover, girls who marry prematurely are more likely to believe their husbands are justified in doing so. A study conducted by ICRW in two states in India found that girls who were married before 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later.[xxxv]
Child spouses are burdened with adult responsibilities and expectations but lack the emotional, physical, and psychological maturity to cope with them. In situations where the husband and his family mistreat the girl, this gap is amplified. Save the Children’s Country Director in Jordan, Saba Al Mobaslat, defends that Syrian girls, ‘ […] are at extreme risk of mental health issues resulting from social isolation, stress and abuse’.[xxxvi]
Is enough being done in conflict zones?
Child marriage is a violation of human rights that carries important health, education, and development opportunity costs. Therefore, several calls for action and programs to mitigate its risks have been made. Access to education is being expanded, delaying the age of marriage. Effectively, enrolment in primary education in developing regions reached 90% in 2010 and the world has achieved gender equality in primary education, according to the Millennium Development Goals.[xxxvii] Additionally, some development agencies and programs like India’s Apni Beti Apna Dhan program offer bonds for parents to invest in their children’s education and to relieve financial hardships. Moreover, support programs such as schooling, sexual and reproductive health services, and recourse from violence are being made available, for instance by CARE’s Towards Improved Economic and Sexual/Reproductive Health Outcomes for Adolescent Girls programme.[xxxviii] Last but not least, UN agencies such as the United Nations Population Fund have been calling for minimum-age marriage laws and mechanisms for their enforcement.
Unfortunately, these programs are not sufficient and, more importantly, they are not available in conflict zones. This perpetuates the child marriage cycle: parents feel insecurity and so they organize premature weddings for their children in order to protect them. However, this only increases the level of economic, social, and physical insecurity that parents were trying to avoid in the first place. Mitigating the risk of child marriage should be elevated as a foreign policy issue where its occurrence is more prone. Measures such as fostering education and creating schools near the areas where families have fled to are strong protection strategies, delaying the age of marriage and providing girls with wage-earning opportunities. It is extremely important to break the cycle of this atrocious violation of human rights that is slowly hindering the development and security of the countries in which it occurs.