The world is home to more than 1.1 billion girls under the age of 18 who are poised to become the largest generation of female leaders, entrepreneurs and change-makers the world has ever seen. Yet, discrimination, harmful gender norms and practices, existing laws, insecurity and poverty still support child marriage thereby enabling girls to continue to be married off in both times of stability and crisis because they are still viewed as being less valuable than boys. The result is that the acceptance of child marriage continues to rob girls of their childhood and compromises their options and opportunities throughout life. For example, married girls are less likely to remain in school and more likely to become pregnant in adolescence. They are also more likely to experience domestic violence and poverty, be isolated from family and friends and excluded from participating in their communities.
In addition, child marriage takes a heavy toll on their physical and psychological well-being. Pregnancy during adolescence can have a negative consequence for both the health and well-being of girls and their babies including maternal conditions, such as hemorrhage, sepsis and obstructed labor which constitute the leading causes of mortality among adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19. As a result of child marriage, by the time girls reach adolescence, if they are still alive, many are left dreaming instead of achieving.
In both stable and crisis contexts, families try to justify child marriage in a number of ways. It can be viewed as a way to cope with greater economic hardship if they are poor families who have lost livelihoods, land and homes because of a crisis, as the one-off payment of a marriage dowry to a groom’s family is often a more viable option than struggling to feed, clothe, educate, house and protect a daughter for years to come. To some families it can provide extra income in the form of a bride price. Child marriage can also involve the sale of a girl, as a commodity, who is married off in exchange for goods or money, to settle debts or disputes, as a form of “social advancement”, to perpetuate family wealth or for the purpose of forced labor. Other parents, driven by poverty and lack of information, sell their children to traffickers, thereby putting them in situations of child marriage. The practice of child marriage is also seen by some as a way to prevent premarital sex, as female sexuality and virginity are associated with family honour. The solution? Marry their daughters young to guarantee their virginity at marriage.
Climate change as well as armed conflicts, migration of displacement are also serious aggravators of child marriage. Nine out of the ten countries with the highest child marriage rates are considered either fragile or extremely fragile states. Seven out of the twenty countries with the highest child marriage rates face some of the biggest humanitarian crises. As girls lose their support systems and homes, are unaccompanied or placed in insecure environments and in new roles, their risk of child marriage increases.
Destroyed livelihoods, desperation, insecurity, hunger and lack of education also drives families to marry off their daughters. Child marriage is also seen as form of protection or a means to avoid family dishonour for a girl who is at risk in a city or armed camp full of strangers. For example, as single girls were at a high risk of sexual violence by ISIS ﬁghters in Mosul, families (even the more educated ones) saw child marriage as a form of protection. Rape, torture and forced prostitution, sometimes under the disguise of “marriage”, are also been used as weapons of war ,weakening families and communities. Girls as young as 8 years old can also be used by armed forces and armed groups for the purposes of forced child marriage.
By Linda Witong, SI Special Advisor to Advocacy