Joseph married Mary when she was barely 14 years old – or so legend has it. So what’s the big deal now with marrying off your eight-year-old girl then? Well, that was 2,000+ years ago and Mary lived in an era where that was the norm. Today, child marriage is an issue of force, pressure and discrimination.
Numbers say a lot, even if one has no grasp for mathematics. So let’s begin with recent results from a Fact Sheet jointly prepared by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and UN-Women – as part of a collaborative effort of the United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development, coordinated by UNDESA and UN-Focal Point on Youth.
Roughly 1.8 billion youths, between the ages of 10 and 24, live in the world today – and nearly half (880 million) are females. Of that amount, 700 million were married before their 18th birthday. One out of every three (about 250 million girls) were placed in marriages before they turned 15, which means more than 39,000 girls are forced to marry every day. That adds up to 14.2 million girls marrying each year… some as young as eight years old.
Now, mind you – young boys do get married off too. However, the excessive contrast throws off any sort of balance that one could ever fathom. In the Republic of Moldova, for example, 15% of females were married before age 18, yet only 2% of males in the same age group were married. This shows girls’ marriage rates being higher than boys’ by more than 5%. Even in countries where child marriage is less common, the same gender differences are found.
As always, the United Nations takes no pause in its aim to be at the forefront of every human rights and humanitarian issue in the world. As the 69th session of the General Assembly kicked off on Monday September 22, one of the premier ministerial discussions was “Ending Child, Early and Forced Marriage: A World Where All Girls Can Reach Their Full Potential.”
Of the many UN organizations and other heads of State present at the event, Italy took its normal stance to offer assistance. It is quite the buzz that wherever human rights issues arise, and is brought to the UN for remedying, Italy puts its best foot forward.
So Federica Mogherini, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy, took the floor to congratulate UNFPA for its outstanding work in protecting girls’ human rights. She expressed joy about Italy’s financial contributions as well as its much wider cooperative strategies against all “harmful traditional practices.” Italy has launched several educational and training programs over the past five years.
Mogherini strongly urged other states to support UNFPA’s efforts, financially, while emphasizing the fact that early and forced marriages represent a serious form of child abuse and is also a violation of a person’s basic human right.
“Imposed marriage deprives young girls of this right, affecting their entire life and causing severe and irreparable damage to their dignity,” Mogherini said. “Moreover, early and forced marriage is closely related to the breaching of other human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as the right to education, health, freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.”
In a statement from Unicef, many factors interact to place a girl at risk of marriage, including poverty, the perception that marriage will provide ‘protection’, family honor, social norms, customary or religious laws that condone the practice, an inadequate legislative framework and the state of a country's civil registration system.
The organization adds however that child marriage is a blatant manifestation of gender inequality which reflects social norms that perpetuate discrimination against girls. It compromises a girl’s development by resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupting her schooling, limiting her opportunities for career and vocational advancement and placing her at increased risk of domestic violence. Therefore ending of child marriage will help break the inter-generational cycle of poverty by allowing girls and women to participate more fully in society.
Also, empowered and educated girls are better able to nourish and care for their children, leading to healthier, smaller families. “When girls are allowed to be girls, everybody wins,” Unicef comments.
The youths themselves did not hold back from sharing their thoughts on this issue. UN-Youth Org highlighted the fact that adolescent girls face strenuous challenges during the transitional stage to adulthood because of early marriage. Not only is their growth stunted, but the chance at getting an education is compromised. Even if they do attend school, they are the first to either leave classes when there is a need for handling domestic chores, or they drop out permanently due to being married or when they become pregnant.
Records show that roughly 16 million married adolescent girls give birth annually. On the contrast, unprotected intercourse results in too-frequent pregnancies and complications during pregnancy. Many girls are too young to endure childbirth and are therefore subjected to severe health risks such as maternal mortality. Also, stillbirth and early infant death are 50% more likely for babies with mothers under 20.
Gender and age dish out another horde of disadvantages to young brides due to discrimination on the job market. Not many options are offered to girls, and availabilities are usually diminished positions which are normally unpaid, family-based work (housekeeping, house cleaner, etc.). Traditional practices, lack of opportunities and the lower value placed on women’s economic contributions all leave young women with higher rates of unemployment.
Results from the joint-effort fact sheet showed more disadvantages for child brides: they are threatened inside the home. Their domestic situation most often leads to physical and sexual violence which is seen as gender-based. But any complaints they might have are often stifled, as the stigma associated with sexual violence prevents girls from reporting rape and abuse.
Girls and young women are normally neglected by recovery program agencies. And aid distribution never reaches those who are confined to the home because of social norms or insecurity of their husbands.
“This is why child marriage deserves to be addressed as an overriding and “stand alone” issue in the field of human rights protection,” Mogherini added.
UNESCO released its own report, too, which showed that female child marriage is most common in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where the 10 countries with the highest rates are located. Niger, which has the highest overall prevalence of child marriage in the world, 77% of females marry before age 18.
South Asia is home to almost half (42%) of all child brides worldwide; India alone accounts for one third of the global total and Bangladesh has the highest rate of marriage involving girls under age 15. Child marriage is also more common among certain population groups. In Serbia, for example, 8% of women were married as children. However, the percentage rate is much higher in Roma communities where more than half (54%) of young girls were married.
To make matters more intense, girls are often married to men considerably older than they are. And due to having an older sexual partner, who most likely has many other sexual partners, girls are not only biologically more susceptible to infections such as HIV/AIDS, but they are more likely to become exposed to those who inject drugs, thus making them more vulnerable. In Mauritania and Nigeria, more than half of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 who are currently married have husbands 10 or more years their senior.
Child marriage directly hinders the achievement of six out of the eight Millennium Development Goals says Planned Parenthood Federation of America, as well as Girls Not Brides, (a global partnership of more than 400 civil society organizations from over 60 countries committed to ending child marriage).
“We are working hard to obtain a wide number of co-sponsorships which will represent a cornerstone in our campaign because it is important to note that if child marriage is not properly addressed, the international community will not fulfil its commitments to reduce global poverty unless it tackles child marriage, hence the UN’s MDGs will not be met,” Mogherini closed.