Last month there was international outcry over “Rawan,” an eight-year-old Yemeni child bride who reportedly died from the internal injuries she sustained on her wedding night with her 40 year-old husband. This story sheds light on a human rights crisis that has been going on for centuries.
Twenty-five thousand children worldwide, most of whom are girls, are married everyday. And it’s estimated that by 2030, 130 million more girls in South Asia will be married—a region that accounts for almost half of all child marriages.
International human rights bodies have clearly condemned child marriage and governments have a legal obligation to eliminate it. Just two weeks ago, more than 100 countries co-sponsored a historic resolution from the United Nations Human Rights Council to end the practice—yet every South Asian country, with the exception of Maldives where the incidence is the lowest, has remained silent.
Child marriage in South Asia is defined by a complex web of laws
The legal status of child marriage in South Asia is defined by a complex web of national laws, including civil codes, criminal codes and personal laws that oftentimes contradict one another.
In India, child marriage has been prohibited by law for decades and yet it is widespread due to poor enforcement of this prohibition and exceptions to the general law arising from religion-based laws. In Nepal, the legal age of marriage has been established at 18 with parental consent, and 20 without parental consent, and yet child marriage is common especially in rural areas, again due to lack of enforcement.
A fundamental premise of international law is that marriage should be established upon the consent of both parties. International human rights treaties have been interpreted as establishing a minimum legal age of marriage of 18. The World Health Organization has discouraged marriage before 18 and pregnancy before 20 on health grounds. Yet, child marriage remains a pervasive human rights crisis with dangerous consequences for young girls and women in South Asia.
Child marriage persists in South Asia because of the continued failure of governments to enact and enforce laws
Through our research at the Center for Reproductive Rights, we have found that child marriage persists in South Asia due to the continued failure of these governments to enact and enforce laws that prohibit the practice—in effect violating these young girls’ human rights.
Even worse, young girls are too often subjected to heinous abuse, such as sexual violence and marital rape, placing their health and lives at serious risk.
The pressure on these young brides to give birth immediately has led to early, closely spaced and frequent pregnancies that significantly increase girls’ risk of maternal mortality due to pregnancy-related complications—the leading cause of death among girls ages 15-19 worldwide, accounting for 70,000 deaths every year. Other adverse outcomes include uterine prolapse, unsafe abortion and the risk of sexually transmissible infections.
Inaction from governments perpetuate the legal and practical barriers that allow for girls to be married against their will
Yet South Asian governments perpetuate the legal and practical barriers that allow for girls to be married off against their will without any viable legal remedy or way out through their inaction and complicity. They are, in effect, responsible for violating these young girls’ human rights when they should be protecting them.
The contradictory laws in South Asia, along with the lack of accountability and political will of officials to effectively implement laws and policies to eliminate child marriage, have brought us to this tragic impasse. Girl brides really have no say as to whether they want to get married and are trapped within their marriages without a realistic way to leave because governments fail to protect their human rights.
Human rights are non-negotiable. Governments especially in South Asia must take immediate steps to meet the standards established in human rights law. It’s time to end child marriage, and to give the rights of girls the respect they legally deserve.
In the time it has taken to read this article 42 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds
Center for Reproductive Rights
Melissa Upreti is the Regional Director for Asia at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global advocacy organisation that fights to ensure reproductive rights are treated as fundamental human rights.