At 11 years old Mwaka was given to her neighbor as a child bride in exchange for 2,000 kwacha—about 16 US dollars. Her father needed the money to feed their family and Mwaka was sold off without her knowledge as a child bride to a man who was 65 years old. After six months, Mwaka ran away and her parents took her back. However, she was the exception: most women never break free of these marriages and suffer negative lifelong effects from child marriage.
Globally, 37,000 girls under the age of 18 are married every day. If this trend continues, more than 140 million girls will be married before the age of 18 in the next decade. Child marriage is defined as “a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18 and refers to both formal marriages and informal unions in which children under the age of 18 live with a partner as if married.” Child marriage is a violation of children’s human rights and is prohibited by international law; however, it continues to be a global problem. In some countries, girls as young as seven or eight are forced by their families to marry older men. Families have many reasons for doing this, often viewing child marriage as an economic investment, and in some cases, as a way to protect their daughters.
Child marriage has a multitude of negative effects, including a loss of access to education. Girls who are married as children are unlikely to be in school as they are expected to take care of the home, removing them from educational opportunities and catapulting them into a “life of poor prospects, with an increased risk of violence, abuse, ill health or early death.” Education is imperative for girls to make informed decisions about their sexual health; as a result of child marriage, girls lose their right to make important decisions about their sexual health and well-being. Child marriage also leads to early pregnancy, which is extremely dangerous to children’s bodies, as girls who are under 15 are “five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s and face a higher risk of pregnancy-related injuries, such as obstetric fistula.”
Children who are married at young ages “are more likely to experience violence, abuse and forced sexual relations and they are more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections.” Child brides are often unable to negotiate safer sexual practices and are therefore at a higher risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. These negatives effects extend past the child bride herself; the “children of child brides are 60 percent more likely to die in the first year of life than those born to mothers older than 19, and families of child brides are more likely to be poor and unhealthy.” Essentially, “child marriage effectively ends a girl’s childhood, curtails her education, minimizes her economic opportunities, increases her risk of domestic violence, and puts her at risk for early, frequent, and very high-risk pregnancies.” Incidents of child marriage have been shown to increase as political instability increases, leaving girls living in conflict or crisis settings particularly vulnerable to the practice.
While child marriage is a global practice spanning cultures, religions, and ethnicity, the practice is most common in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 38% of girls become child brides, and in the Middle East and North Africa, where 17% of girls become child brides. The highest rates of child marriage are observed in the Central African Republic, Niger, and Chad. In Niger, an astounding 77 percent of women aged 20-49 were married before age 18, compared to five percent of men in the same age group. In addition, not only are girls married off at young ages, they are commonly married off to men who are considerably older. In Nigeria and Mauritania, over 50 percent of girls and women (ages 15-19) who are currently married have husbands who are 10 or more years older than they are.
United Nations’ Action
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is the UN’s frontline defense against child marriage, fighting the issue with both long and short term policies and actions. The UN claims to have 5 methods to expedite the changes of social norms regarding child marriage: “increas[ing] agency and resources for adolescents—especially girls—at risk of and affected by child marriage”; “enhanc[ing] legal and development policy frameworks [with nation states] for an enabling environment that protects the rights of adolescent girls and boys”; “increas[ing] the generation and use of a robust evidence base for advocacy, programming, learning and tracking progress”; “enhanc[ing] systems and services that respond to the needs of adolescents at risk of or affected by child marriage”; and “increas[ing] social action, acceptance, and visibility around investing in and supporting girls, and shifting social expectations relating to girls, including by engaging boys and men.”
In addition to UNICEF’s work, the UN has been fighting child marriage through another agency, the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA). UNFPA collects data in order to produce “concrete, evidence-based solutions to child marriage, with an emphasis on efforts that can be scaled-up, sustained and produce measurable results” and works side-by-side with governments and other partners to defend the human rights of girls worldwide. UNICEF and UNFPA have also partnered to take on child marriage: the UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage targets eliminating child marriage in the 12 countries with the highest rates of child brides. This is a truly revolutionary program because the plan also addresses social norms on child marriage with communities, in addition to strengthening existing strategies, forming a unique holistic program with shared plans and goals. The program works in “partnership with governments, civil society organizations and young people themselves and adopt methods that have proven to work at scale.”
The Action for Adolescent Girls program’s goal is to “empower girls to know and exercise their human rights, including their right to choose, as adults, whom to marry.” Finally, many international agreements spearheaded by the UN include provisions outlawing child marriage, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Child marriage is also included in Goal 5 of the sustainable development goals, to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” under Target 5.3, to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.”
Child Marriage in Niger and Morocco
UNICEF estimates that approximately 3 out of 4 girls are married before the age of 18, and 1 in 4 girls are married before the age of 15. In Niger, poverty is a major catalyst of child marriage: many parents hope marriage will give their child economic prosperity and an increase in social status. However, this prevents girls from receiving an education; UNICEF notes that an astounding “81% of women aged 20-24 with no education and 63% with only primary education were married or in union at age 18, compared to only 17% of women with secondary education or higher.” Child marriage is also culturally strong in the country, as parents aim to uphold social and religious traditions and prevent the “dishonor” from pregnancy outside of marriage.
The UN, along with the Nigerien Government, is “developing a multisector national action plan to end child marriage and adopted a decree for the protection of the girl-child in school to guarantee access and retention until age 16.” This program also provides “support towards the finalization and dissemination of the National Strategic Plan on Adolescent and Youth Health 2017−2021, and the National Gender Policy and Action Plan.” Despite these strong efforts, Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world and the 14th highest absolute number of child brides—676,000. According to advocacy organization Girls Not Brides, the major contributing factors to child marriage in Niger are poverty, polygamy, family honor, social status, gender norms, and level of education. The UN’s plan addresses most of these issues; however, enforcement is lacking. The work of the program is nullified when child marriage is still permissible through legal loopholes. The Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage tackles social issues, but it must prioritize changing cultural and social norms so that community and religious leaders stop issuing child marriages and parents stop forcing their daughters into marriage.
In Morocco, 30,000 girls are married each year, according to Droit & Justice, an organization specializing in promoting rule of law in the country. The organization’s study also suggests “that the increase in marriages of minors in Morocco goes back to the influence of traditional customs and to a crisis of deteriorated values. While some families may instill the desire for early marriage in their children at a young age, others may pressure their daughters or sons into marrying young.” In recent years, the Moroccan government has attempted to decrease the rates of child marriage by raising the legal marriage age from 16 to 18 in Article 20 of the 2004 Mudawana, the legal family code. Despite these efforts, child marriage in Morocco is increasing according to the Ministry of Justice. Exceptions to laws forbidding child marriage permit the legality of such a marriage in the case that the family of the child signs a waiver, and families are utilizing these waivers: “the number of waiver requests for minors increased to 41,669 in 2015, compared to 38,331 in 2007, according to the Moroccan High Commission of Planning (HCP).”
Difficulties Combating Child Marriage
This legal loophole has been a point of difficulty for the UN’s efforts to combat child marriage. Many countries have signed onto and ratified international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women with exceptions. Child marriage is prohibited by national law in most countries, however, many countries still allow girls to be married before 18 if parents or judicial bodies give their consent. In other cases, despite the presence of a strong legal framework in a country, enforcement of laws is weak.
Another point of contention is that age of marriage laws often contradict one another: when multiple legal systems (civil, criminal, family, and customary) are in place, upholding a law in one system becomes more difficult. In some countries, the minimum age for marriage is “lower under customary or religious laws than national law, which also undermines legal protections.” In her 2018 paper, “Child Marriage and the Failure of International Law: A Comparison of American, Indian, and Canadian Domestic Policies” published in the International and Comparative Law Review, Marcy Robles writes that “religious practices often triumph over the international agreements and treaties as the conventions defer greatly to religion.” This allows for a religious exemption, effectively nullifying laws prohibiting child marriages. This inconsistency between legal systems creates a complicated situation in which “legislation is created to combat child marriage, yet is not enforced because there is an understanding that many customary practices would continue even if they were inconsistent with new laws.” In essence, international treaties and agreements set forth to combat child marriage can quickly become useless in practice.
Additionally, in many countries where child marriage is practiced, “birth and marriage registration is weak or non-existent,” which makes it difficult to enforce laws due to a lack of data. A 2017 study found that, globally, “when considering only the legal age and not exceptions, the number of girls marrying illegally is estimated at 10.3 million in 2015 and 10.6 million in 2017.” Additionally, nearly 100 million girls are not adequately protected by their countries’ laws due to exceptions to marriage age requirements. Legal protections against child marriage tend to be weakest in the Middle East and North Africa, where nearly three out of every four girls between the ages of 10 and 17 are not protected against child marriage when the possibility of parental or judicial consent is acknowledged. Child marriage is also extremely prevalent in rural areas where the law is harder to implement; when victims attempt to take their abusers to court, they often struggle due to their age and lack of knowledge and resources.
Even though child marriage in West and Central Africa has declined over the past twenty years, “progress has been uneven, and still four in 10 women are married before the age of 18 and, of these, one in three before the age of 15. West and Central Africa includes six of the 10 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world: Niger; the Central African Republic; Chad; Mali; Burkina Faso and Guinea.” Unless progress against child marriage is accelerated now, “ending child marriage in West and Central Africa will take more than 100 years, with far-reaching, life-altering consequences for millions of child brides.” According to the UN, “if there is no reduction in the practice of child marriage, up to 280 million girls alive today are at risk of becoming brides by the time they turn 18. Due to population growth, this number will approach 320 million by 2050.” A UNICEF report reveals that “due to rapid population growth and high prevalence of child marriage, even if the current decline rate was doubled, it would not suffice to reduce the annual number of girls married.”
The UN has been successful at creating comprehensive action plans to address the socio-cultural and structural factors underpinning the practice of child marriage, such as the Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage and the Action for Adolescent Girls program. However, international agreements such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and CEDAW must be better enforced, and the Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage must have specific and clear objectives and plans—not just goals.
In order to meet the goals the UN has set out, recommendations from the organization Girls Not Brides, one of the leading nonprofit organizations on this issue and partner of the UNFPA-UNICEF program, should be followed:
- Governmental reports to the UN regarding the country’s adherence to international child marriage laws can—and should—be used to hold governments accountable for failure to implement and enforce solutions to uphold their obligations under these conventions.
- All individuals under the age of 18 should be legally declared as children.
- International organizations should work with religious and traditional leaders to raise awareness of the law, the harmful impacts of child marriage, and alternatives for girls. In addition, these leaders should be asked to obtain proof of age before weddings and report any cases of child marriage to the relevant authorities.
- Birth and marriage registrations should be mandatory and free/low cost.
- A curriculum to train local law enforcement authorities to respond to child marriage and gender-based violence cases should be created and utilized.
- Legal aid systems and services should be created specifically for rural areas, and existing free legal services for victims of child marriage should be made more accessible.
Both Canada and Ethiopia have successfully implemented many of these recommendations:
Canada has one of the best domestic policies to combat child marriage. According to Robles, Canadian provinces and territories allowed some children as young as twelve years old to marry on the basis of parental consent or pregnancy until 2015 when the federal government amended the Civil Marriage Act. The minimum age of marriage in Canada is now 16 years old and exceptions to this age requirement are prohibited. Additionally, Canada’s 2015 Criminal Code criminalized the celebration of or participation in “a marriage ceremony with full knowledge that one of the persons being married is under the age of 16 years.” Violation of this act can result in imprisonment of up to five years. This code also criminalizes individuals “who remove a resident child from Canada with the purpose of marrying said child in another country.” Domestically, the Canadian government has provided outreach and assistance to non-governmental organizations working with victims of child marriage in Canada, and training on child marriage is provided to border officers, front-line police officers, and other service providers. Internationally, Global Affairs Canada has established a Child, Early, and Forced Marriage Unit. The purpose of this unit is to manage Canada’s international activities in eliminating child marriage worldwide.
The government of Ethiopia has implemented programs to combat child marriage: the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture “together with USAID-funded projects are supporting an initiative to delay the age of marriage through economic incentives that keep girls in school and provide life skills training.” In many cases, “the local parent-teacher association and Girls’ Advisory Committee, working with local government officials, has intervened with parents and religious elders who had arranged early marriages of girls as young as 10 and persuaded them to cancel the marriages and keep the girls in school.” The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association organizes to ensure that laws regarding age of marriage in the country are observed and enforced by not only local governments, but also by religious institutions and within communities. Today, Ethiopian women ages 20-24 are marrying about three years later than their counterparts three decades ago.
Child marriage is a serious issue impacting millions of children worldwide. It is important to note that while much focus on child marriage has been on countries in the Global South, western countries suffer from child marriage too. Over a 10-year period in 38 states in the United States, “more than 167,000 children—almost all of them girls, some as young as 12—were married … mostly to men 18 or older.” The total number of children wed in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010 is estimated at nearly 248,000. In addition, at least 31 percent of these children were married to a spouse aged 21 or older.
The progress made by nation states and international non-governmental organizations working together over the past three decades has led to a decrease in the rate of child marriage: according to UNICEF, 25 million child marriages have been prevented in the past decade alone. If this current rate of progress is sustained, “the proportion of women married as children will continue to decrease: from 33 per cent in 1985 to 22 per cent by 2030 and to 18 per cent by 2050.” However, this progress must keep up with population growth, or else rates of child marriage will not change at the anticipated level. Child marriage will not end simply with the passage of legislation— this legislation must also be adequately enforced and crafted to keep governments accountable.