An epidemic of illegal child marriages is today sweeping across parts of the world, with more than 20,000 marriages taking place each day, new research from Save the Children and the World Bank reveals.
The announcement marks the International Day of the Girl on October 11.
Nations are increasingly implementing laws to protect girls from child marriages. These include raising the legal age of marriage and scrapping laws that permit early marriage with parental consent.
Despite this, Save the Children reports that more than 100 million girls are still not protected against child marriage by laws within their countries. But even laws do not necessarily prevent such marriages. More than two-thirds of all child marriages take place below the country’s legal age. Many of these illegal marriages are classed as “informal unions”.
Of the roughly 7.5 million illegal child marriages that occur each year, around 1.7 million marriages take place in West and Central Africa alone, giving it the highest rate of child marriage globally.
Niger, Central African Republic, Chad and Mali all make the top five countries.
This leads to high rates of teen pregnancy outside of formal marriage, and a high rate of gender-based violence and exploitative relationships within these societies – which often go unpunished.
|When my mother told me I was to be married, I had to drop out of school. I was really sad and scared|
According to Save the Children’s research, deeply rooted traditional values are the primary cause of such marriages.
|Fatima was 14 when she was
“Laws banning the practice are an important first step. But millions of vulnerable girls will continue to be at risk unless child marriage is tackled head on,” said Kirsty McNeil, Save the Children’s executive director of policy, advocacy and campaigns.
“We need to address attitudes in communities so that we can end this harmful practice once and for all.”
The NGO spoke to a number of girls forced into child marriages.
Fatima, 23, from Senegal, described leaving her family for a marriage at 14. Like many other girls from impoverished circumstances, her family felt they had no other choice.
“When my mother told me I was to be married, I had to drop out of school. I was really sad and scared. I had to move to a new village where I did not know anyone,” said Fatima.
“I think it is very bad when girls have to do this and I think we have to stop this from happening and help girls to stay in school.”
|My mother had just died and I was packing my bags to go to her funeral. On the way there my older brother caught me and forced me to return home|
Hawa, 25, also from Senegal, describes being also forced into a marriage when she was 14. Despite having four children and not wanting more, she says women are pressured to have large families by their husbands.
“The elders came into my father’s place and said I had been given away for marriage. I said I didn’t want to,” said Hawa.
|Hawa says girls are forced into
“My mother had just died and I was packing my bags to go to her funeral.
“On the way there my older brother caught me and forced me to return home, beating me and saying that they had given their word for my marriage and I had to respect that and that all my sisters had done the same.”
Kirsty McNeil says such marriages restrict girls’ opportunities and further entrench gender imbalances.
“We will not see a world where girls and boys have the same opportunities to succeed in life until we eradicate child marriage,” said McNeil.
“When a girl gets married too young, her role as a wife and a mother takes over. She is more likely to leave school, she may become pregnant and suffer abuse.
“The longer a girl stays in education, the more likely it is that she grows up healthy, secures a livelihood and has healthy and educated children of her own.”
An African-led conference on ending child marriage will take place in Senegal on October 23-25. Government heads, religious and other influential leaders, child rights organisations and UN agencies will gather at the West and Central Africa High Level Meeting on Ending Child Marriage.
“From this meeting, we hope to have an important understanding of child marriage, its consequences, drivers, and solutions,” said Sia Komora, first lady of Sierra Leone.
“We’ll look at policies and legal frameworks surrounding child marriage, and we intend to build a platform where we will be sharing our successes and challenges in the implementations of policies and programmes in ending child marriage.”
|Passing good laws on banning child marriage is essential, but that alone is an insufficient step|
A UNICEF study reported that if child marriage is not reduced, the global number of women married as children will reach 1.2 billion. 700 million women alive today were married as children.
Heather Barr, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that child marriage was one of the major threats facing women and girls today. Passing good laws on banning child marriage is essential, but that alone is an insufficient step.
“We also need concerted effort by governments to enforce the laws; assist children as risk of child marriage and married children; enlist youth activists, educators, health care workers, local government, community leaders, civil society groups and law enforcement to change attitudes within communities,” Barr told The New Arab.
Barr added it was essential “to equip young people with the information they need about the illegality and harmfulness of child marriage, about their own rights, and about sexual and reproductive health – so that they can make healthy choices and push back against pressure to marry young”.
This article was originally published in The New Arab.