On June 7, UNICEF reported that an estimated 115 million boys and men were married as children, bringing global child marriage numbers to 765 million. That is over half a billion children, and yet that number only represents 82 countries, less than half the countries in the world. Of the 115 million child grooms, 1 in 5 children, or 23 million, were reportedly married before the age of 15. However, in comparison, girls continue to fare alarmingly worse with 1 in 5 women aged 20 to 24 years old married before their 18th birthday compared to 1 in 30 men.
According to UNICEF, “Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights.” It is recognized as such in many international agreements and conventions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledges the right to “free and full” consent to marriage. The Declaration states that this cannot occur when “one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner.” The Convention of the Rights of the Child doesn’t refer to marriage specifically; however, it does relate child marriage to other rights, including 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.” As UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore succinctly puts it, “As we mark the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we need to remember that marrying boys and girls off while they are still children runs counter to the rights enshrined in the Convention. Through further research, investment and empowerment, we can end this violation.”
Not only does child marriage deprive children of their rights as humans, but it also deprives them of other opportunities, such as jobs and education. In Somalia, almost half of the girls are married before their 18th birthday. In one particular case documented by Dheepa Pandian, a girl named Hoodo was married when she was only 15 years old. After giving birth, she dropped out of school. This is a very common occurrence among Somalian child brides, and as a result, UNICEF has set out to educate the girls on the significance of attending school. It has been a successful initiative as Hoodo and other girls have returned back to school. Child marriage doesn’t just affect girls; boys are just as susceptible to these same outcomes. According to UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, “Marriage steals childhood. Child grooms are forced to take on adult responsibilities for which they may not be ready. Early marriage brings early fatherhood, and with it added pressure to provide for a family, cutting short education and job opportunities.”
As child marriage continues to devastate the lives of millions of children across the world, I can think of no better way to describe it than in the words of actor and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Orlando Bloom –as a “social evil”—and hopefully with the continued efforts of UNICEF and its partners, it can be eradicated.