Child marriage directly affects approximately 14 million girls a year. It legitimises human rights violations and the abuse of girls under the guise of culture, honor, tradition, and religion. It is part of a sequence of discrimination that begins at a girl’s birth and continues throughout her entire life.
Equality Now’s new report on ‘Protecting the Girl Child: Using the Law to End Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Related Human Rights Violations’ report illustrates that child marriages does not take place within a vacuum. It is part of a continuum of abuse experienced by a young girl and is often linked with female genital mutilation (FGM) and – depending on location – rape, domestic violence, sex trafficking and removal of future opportunities afterwards.
Furthermore, when a child bride gives birth, the vicious cycle of poverty, poor health, curtailed education, violence, instability, disregard for rule of law and legal and other discrimination often continues into the next generation, especially for any daughters she may have.
Liloe was 14 when she fled to the Tasaru Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya to escape FGM and early marriage. Staff from the centre, which is supported by Equality Now, with funds from Comic Relief, arranged a reconciliation with her family and her mother made a promise not to mutilate her or marry her off.
However, when Liloe was 16, her mother tried again and Liloe returned to Tasaru. On this occasion, staff members reported the case to the police who prosecuted Liloe’s mother in court under the Children’s Act 2001. Liloe’s mother was found guilty and sentenced to two years of community service. Liloe continues to attend school and has recently been reconciled with her relatives.
Child marriage in Maasai communities
In Kenya, among certain communities, girls can face considerable pressures to marry early. One such community is the Maasai, where a significant number of girls are married off as children. Since girls live with their husbands’ families, this means that their own families are relieved of the economic burden of supporting them. For this reason also, families often see little point in educating their daughters as it will not be them but the husbands’ families that benefit.
A high proportion of Maasai girls are also subject to FGM, which is seen as a rite of passage into womanhood and an immediate precursor to marriage. Therefore, once a girl has undergone FGM, she is under pressure to be married as soon as possible and in most cases her parents find a husband for her.
Kenya: Action on child marriage needed
Kenya has both legislative and institutional measures in place to address early marriage and FGM – section 14 of the Children’s Act and also the Anti-FGM Act, which has set the stage for the new Anti-FGM board. However, more needs to be done to implement these laws and ensure that all girls are safeguarded.
Kenya is not alone and many countries featured in our report do have a minimum age of marriage but fail to implement the law. Meanwhile, some countries do not have any law at all, which puts girls at extreme risk of harm, with no legislation to help protect them.
At national level, a law is vital but so too is a comprehensive, interlinked approach, which connects the justice sector with healthcare, education, community and other leaders. Such an initiative should not tackle child marriage as a single abuse, but as something which is related to other manifestations of discrimination and violence against women and girls. This is a key step in ending child marriage and it is essential that all countries implement these types of measures as matter of urgency.
Without such structural frameworks in place, which recognise child marriage as part of a harmful cycle of abuse, girls will remain vulnerable not only to being married off at a young age, but to a lifetime of violence and discrimination.