What is Child Marriage?

Child Marriage, a deplorable practice of marrying children under the age of 18, remains a worldwide scourge to this day.  Unfortunately, it is a custom that often involves families who either through custom or belief, consider it right. In order to provide a future for their children, they marry them off prematurely.

This peculiarity, involves the absence of consent on the part of the child; it is often described as ‘Forced marriage’. However, whether or not this is done with the consent of the person concerned is irrelevant. It is a human rights violation that affects the development of a person socially, economically and health-wise.

Who is affected by Child Marriage?

Frankly speaking, in spite of what one might think, this phenomenon also affects boys. Globally, about 115 million boys were married before the age of 18. This phenomenon affects some countries of the world in different geographical locations. Particularly, some countries in Central and South America and others in Africa.

In most of the world, the phenomenon specifically affects girls. These girls are denied access to education and an active social life by virtue of their early marriage. In West and Central Africa, 41% of children are married before the age of 18. 60 million girls in this region are married off when they hit puberty which makes the data is even more alarming. Six countries in the top ten of this infamous list belong to this area of the world. Niger leads with 76% of married children, closely followed by the Central African Republic and Chad, with 68% and 67% respectively. Nigeria ranks seventh in terms of the seriousness of the phenomenon. On account of its demographics alone, Nigeria sees more than 22 million child brides.

The constant violation of human rights with regard to children is a phenomenon that is unfortunately also attested to in the MENA region. Rural areas are particularly affected with Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and Morocco dominating.  All this happens as a result of impunity. Despite the fact that the governments of these countries condemn the practice, in rural areas marriages are not made official to the authorities. Consequently, this perpetrates a situation that is very detrimental to women, since in most cases they are not entitled to marriage rights. They are forced to serve their husbands, thus becoming easy prey to domestic and sexual violence.

Why does this happen?

Beyond the traditional aspect, this social practice in some societies has been performed for centuries. What allows the survival of this phenomenon despite it being illegal and contrary to human rights is almost always poverty. This explains why girls from rural areas are more often at risk of child marriage rather than those from the city. In contexts such as those of countries characterized by developing economies, many families receive very low salaries, which can amount to less than a dollar a day. Many parents are forced to give up the hand of one of their daughters because they are afflicted by poverty. With the promise of a large dowry, parents can feed the rest of the family who live in precarious conditions.

How can we end Child Marriage?

Since this custom is linked to complex cultural, economic and social contexts, it cannot be resolved through reference to the law. Successful intervention should include extensive economic investment to support families. This investment should also include educating parents and communities. We must establish policies that empower girls and guarantee them access to a good education.

All this now seems to be completely jeopardized by the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, child marriage seemed to be decreasing worldwide. However, the consequent economic crisis that is emerging globally means child marriage has started to increase again. According to  UNICEF’s last projections prior to the pandemic, more than 100 million girls were at risk of marriage in the next decade, while now, estimates have been revised upwards, with nearly ten million more girls potentially exposed to child marriage.

For girls in particular, this issue is a threat to their health. It results in early pregnancies that inflict physical and psychological damage to their bodies and minds. The effects of child marriage extend beyond the prosperity of the individuals involved and impact the society at large. The fight against child marriage is a social, economic and legal one. It is a battle aimed at guaranteeing the right to childhood and health to all the world’s young people.

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