Ending child marriage must be a priority in the global effort to end violence against women and girls
Last March, representatives from governments around the world assembles in New York for the 57th session of the UN Commission on Status of Women (CSW) to discuss the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. Girls Not Brides and members were there to ensure child marriage was a part of the discussions.
“Despite the progress we have made”, Archbishop Desmond Tutu blogged in November last year, “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.
Globally, child marriage has affected an estimated 400 million women now aged 20-49 years old. Without concerted action, this number will grow: in the coming decade, approximately 14 million girls every year will be expected to marry before they turn 18.
Child marriage puts women and girls at increased risk of sexual, physical and psychological violence throughout their lives. This violation of girls’ most basic rights should prompt action, because we will not end violence against women and girls as long as girls marry as children.
Child brides: a life often blighted by domestic violence
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 aptly describes, “with the consent of society”.
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 brides rarely have a say in whom and when they 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”.
“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.
Child brides are more vulnerable to physical abuse too. Girls who are married before 18 are consistently more likely to be beaten or threatened by their husbands than girls who marry later. Often married to much older men, they are more likely to believe that a man is sometimes justified in beating his wife than women who marry later.
Marrying young also subjects girls to insidious forms of psychological violence, as emotional pressure by their families, husbands or in-laws can limit their ability to make decisions about their own lives and bodies. Forced sexual initiation and early pregnancy can have long lasting effects on the mental health of child brides for years after.
Evelyn, from Liberia, was merely 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.
Challenging the violence that girls face
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 more easy 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.
As a cross-cutting problem, ending child marriage will require collaboration from all sectors of society, including governments, parliamentarians, civil society, community leaders, international organisations, donors and beyond. Concrete political and financial commitments to end child marriage will not only benefit global efforts to end violence against women and girls: they will be crucial for achieving lasting development.