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When does child marriage become slavery?

This blog has been written for Girls Not Brides by Anti-Slavery International following the launch of their report ‘Out of the shadows: child marriage and slavery’. Download the full report here.

“Ana was married at 15 years old to a man twice her age. She suffered domestic violence for over five years. She had been told by her mother and mother-in-law that such abuse was “normal” and a wife’s duty to bear it.” (Save the Children, Home Truths: Domestic violence and its impact on women and children working paper)

Ana from Nicaragua did not have control over her life, suffered long-term abuse in her marriage, and was not realistically able to leave her husband. She was in slavery.

Child slavery can come in many guises, whether its children who are forced to beg by others for profit through violence, those who have to work to pay their parents’ debts in India’s brick kilns or children who are abducted by militias and forced to fight in armed conflicts.

But we rarely think of slavery when it comes to child marriage. Anti-Slavery International has just published a report “Out of the Shadows: Child marriage and slavery,” aiming to throw light on this uncomfortable link with slavery.

Over recent years we have seen growing awareness of child marriage and its harmful consequences for children, especially for girls. This is in no small part due to the excellent work of Girls Not Brides and its member NGOs in many countries around the world.

Despite a few exceptions, notably Ms Gulnara Shahinian, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery’s recent thematic report on servile marriage, who also kindly contributed the foreword to our report, it’s striking that child marriage tends to be viewed rather from gender, health, education or other perspectives – all of which are of course critical aspects to this multi-faceted problem. But if you take away the “marriage” label – we believe that the experiences suffered by many of these children, usually girls, clearly amount to slavery too.

This can be gauged by analysing child marriage cases in relation to international definitions of slavery and slavery-like practices, notably child servitude, child trafficking and forced labour.

How and when child marriage can be defined as slavery

Child marriage can be said to be slavery, primarily if the following elements are present: firstly, if the child has not genuinely given their free and informed consent to enter the marriage; secondly, if the child is subjected to control and a sense of “ownership” in the marriage itself, particularly through abuse and threats, and is exploited by being forced to undertake domestic chores within the marital home or labour outside it, and/or engage in non-consensual sexual relations; and thirdly, if the child cannot realistically leave or end the marriage, leading potentially to a lifetime of slavery.

Of course, if an adult suffers these experiences, it also amounts to slavery. Conversely, it’s possible for children to get married and not be subjected to slavery, particularly marriage involving couples who are both aged 16 to 18 years. But the younger a child is upon marriage, clearly the more vulnerable to non-consensual and exploitative marriages they are. Indeed, our study suggests that a potentially high proportion of the millions of children in marriage globally could be in slavery as a result.

Our study suggests that a potentially high proportion of the millions of children in marriage globally could be in slavery as a result.

Catherine Turner, Anti-Slavery International

Bringing child marriage out of the shadows in relation to slavery matters. As with torture and genocide, governments have a fundamental international obligation to act to end all forms of slavery, no matter where or how it manifests. This includes in the very personal sphere of marriage.

Our report details how child marriage can amount to slavery according to international definitions. We have also tried to reflect the complexity of personal and societal root causes that underpin many child marriage cases, which we believe must be better understood and engaged with to tackle child marriage effectively and sustainably.

Above all we hope it provides an important tool for our combined efforts and initiatives worldwide to end child marriage, particularly where it amounts to slavery and slavery-like practices.

Children like Ana have the right to be free from slavery, however slavery manifests itself.

Do you work on child marriage and slavery?

Applications are open for the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. Grants available are up to £30,000 for up to 12 months. Projects to address child marriage and projects operating in conflict and humanitarian crises are among priority areas. Applications must be made in English, French or Spanish using the online application system and are due by 1 March 2017.