“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” Nelson Mandela
Ratified by every country except one—South Sudan—the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women prohibit child marriage. However, despite widespread condemnation and laws against the practice, child marriage is the terrible fate that many young girls face across the world. Its persistence is mainly attributed to poverty and gender inequality.
To impose marriage on children is to deny them their rights: the right to dignity, education, and health; the right to a life free of abuse and coercion; freedom of thought; the right to be safeguarded against neglect and exploitation; and the right to choose, as adults, whether and whom to marry. To deny these rights is to dehumanize them.
For girls born into poverty, forced marriage is often the result of a financial transaction. In Mauritania, for example, child marriage has evolved into a business in which fathers sell their young daughters to foreign husbands for tens of thousands of dollars, according to Melanne Verveer. In Sudan, it is reported that families experiencing economic hardship often marry off their daughters as a way to reduce the number of mouths to feed. In exchange for child brides families receive dowries, often in the form of cattle. This can only happen in environments in which girls are not valued or where value is placed only on their ability to keep a house and produce children. In these situations, parents see no reason to invest in their daughters.
United Nations Population Fund statistics indicate that in developing countries, one in every three girls is married before the age of 18, while one in nine is married before the age of 15. The 2015 statistics indicated that an estimated 13.5 million children—most of them girls—would be married before their 18th birthday, and 4.4 million at 14 or younger. This translates to 37,000 child marriages per day. Of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage, 18 are in Africa. At 76 percent, Niger has the highest rate in the world. This is followed by Central African Republic and Chad (68 percent); Mali (55 percent); and South Sudan, Burkina Faso, and Guinea (52 percent). No African country in this top 20 has a child marriage rate below 40 percent. These alarming statistics are a cause for concern for a number of reasons.
Debilitating Consequences of Child Marriages
The devastating and far-reaching effects of child marriage are well documented. Child marriage robs girls of their childhood, puts their health—and even lives—at risk, and interrupts their emotional and social development. Victims are known to suffer unspeakable abuses such as marital rape. This practice is one of the most prevalent forms of sexual exploitation of girls in developing countries. In Kenya and Zambia, 15- to 19-year-old married girls were found to be 75 percent more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than unmarried girls. In Malawi, adolescent girls are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV infection because of the pervasiveness of early marriage.
Child marriage often results in pregnancy at a very young age. The risks of such early pregnancies are well documented. For example, in South Sudanwhich has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, girls are three times more likely to die in childbirth than they are to finish high school. Mi Hao Sito, a midwife for Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan, reveals to Al-Jazeera that many girls in their early teens often suffer obstructed labor, and by the time they receive medical attention many have been in labor for two days with babies who have already died. She points out that many girls in South Sudan die during childbirth simply because their bodies lack physical maturity. Mentally, the girls are also not mature enough, as they are still children themselves.
Sito also reports that the majority of the girls who survive tend to suffer a debilitating condition known as fistula, leaving them unable to control their bladder or bowel, or both. The condition comes with stigma and shame, resulting in many girls being shut away and isolated in their villages. While there is corrective surgery available for the condition, for many girls it is a recurring problem. Given that most girls have little control over their pregnancies, they often find themselves pregnant soon after the procedure with little to no time to recover fully.
Despite the debilitating consequences of child marriages as well as the efforts around the world to end it, its persistence leads me to ask, what will it take to end such a horrific practice? How much more suffering must the child bride endure before we can say enough is enough?
Is There An Effective Solution?
A lot of changes are required to end child marriage. These include: educating communities and families that practice child marriage to understand the value of the girl child as well as the benefits that come with valuing her, empowering the girl child to understand her rights and equipping her with right information, providing her with the right opportunities, honoring commitments made to end child marriage, and enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage. While all these developments are critical, the most significant change lies with the men who are accepting child brides and fathers who are selling, coercing, or giving away their daughters for marriage. These men will need to join the fight against child marriages. They need to say no to child brides. If fathers can honor their primary parental role to care and protect their daughters and if men can stop accepting child brides, the horrific practice of child marriage will come to an end. To get to such a point, long-term investment in cultural change is vital.
Give our girls a bright future instead of destroying it. Respect their right to live the dignified and fulfilling lives they deserve.
Agnes Ariho Babugura is a lecturer at Monash University South Africa (School of Social Science: Geography and Environmental Science). She holds a PhD in Environmental Science from the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.