Why is child marriage a form of violence against women and girls?

Photo Credit: Graham Crouch|Girls Not Brides

Violence against women and girls is a global scourge that affects millions of women every year. In fact, it is estimated that one in three women and girls experience violence in their lifetime. Child marriage is a manifestation of that violence.

In many cases parents feel it is in their daughter’s best interest to marry at a young age: they believe marriage will protect her against physical or sexual assault. Yet, this belief is often mistaken. Child marriage puts women and girls at particular risk of sexual, physical and psychological violence throughout their lives.

Here are five reasons why this violation of girls’ most basic rights should prompt action:

1) We will not end violence against women and girls as long as girls marry as children

There is a growing and vocal movement of people around the world determined to put a stop to violence against women and girls. The scale of child marriage means that we cannot hope to achieve this without addressing a practice that leaves girls vulnerable to many different forms of violence.

Globally, 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. Without concerted action, this number will grow: the total number of women married in childhood could increase to over 1.2 billion by 2050.

2) Child brides are more vulnerable to physical violence

Girls who marry as children are particularly at risk of violence from their partners or their partners’ families. They are consistently more likely to be beaten or threatened by their husbands than girls who marry later. The greater the age difference between girls and their husbands, the more likely they are to experience intimate partner violence.

Often married to much older men, child brides are more likely to believe that a man is sometimes justified in beating his wife than women who marry later. Globally, 44% of girls aged 15-19 think a husband or a partner is justified in hitting or beating his wife or partner in certain circumstances. In Africa and the Middle East, this figure is above half.

3) Marrying young subjects girls to insidious forms of violence – emotional and psychological

Evelyn Flomo, 32, community activist in her village in Grand Gedeh County, Liberia.

Evelyn, a former child bride, became a community activist for women’s rights

Child brides often suffer emotional pressure from their families, and husbands or in-laws can limit their ability to make decisions about their own lives and bodies. Forced sexual initiation and early pregnancy often have long lasting effects on the mental health of child brides for years after.

Evelyn, from Liberia, was just 15 when she was forced to marry. Early on, she found it difficult to assert her wishes about whether or when to have a baby and she soon realised that, were she to use some form of contraception, her husband would leave her. She constantly lives in fear that he’ll find out.

Growing evidence from sub-Saharan Africa shows that girls who marry early are at greater risk of contracting HIV/Aids or other sexually transmittable diseases. For instance, in Uganda, the HIV rate for adolescent girls between 15 and 19 was higher for married girls (89%) than for unmarried girls (66%).

4) Child brides are more likely to describe their first sexual experience as forced

Melka's story

Melka, who married at 14, now teaches young girls about their rights

Child brides rarely have a say in whom, whether or when to marry. Melka, from Ethiopia, was 14 when she came home from school to discover she was to be married that day to an elderly man in her community. “After the wedding”, she recalls, “they took me to his house in the next village. He started pushing me towards the bedroom. I didn’t want to go inside, but no one would listen to me”.

Melka is not alone in her situation. A study in northern Ethiopia revealed that 81% of child brides interviewed described their sexual initiation as forced. In India, they were 3 times as likely to report being forced to have sex than girls who married later. Studies have also found that child brides typically continue to experience non-consensual sex throughout their marriage.

5) Action on child marriage will send the clear message that violence against girls and women can never be excused in the name of tradition or culture

When girls marry before 18, their lives are all too often marked by an unspoken, yet very real, kind of violence; one that is happening, as Ela Bhatt of The Elders describes, “with the consent of society”.

“Despite the progress we have made”, Archbishop Desmond Tutu blogged, “this world remains a cruel and arbitrary one for too many women and girls” who are subjected daily to violence commonly accepted as tradition in many societies.

CHALLENGING VIOLENT PRACTICES IN GIRLS’ LIVES

A complex practice of which the causes cannot be generalised, child marriage relies on a core assumption: that women and girls are somehow of lesser value. This often leads to situations where acts of violence against girls are easier to justify.

Countering the normalisation of violence in the lives of girls and women forced to marry early is one of the greatest challenges ahead in our efforts to stop gender-based violence. It will take courage, determination and coordinated action from all sectors of society to bring it to an end.

This blog was originally published to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25 November) and 16 Days of Activism to End Gender Violence in 2013.