Child Marriage: A Vicious Circle of Poverty, Violence and Exclusion

Every 2 seconds, a girl is married against her will – and every year 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. Child marriage not only signifies a forced and premature end to childhood, but permanently interrupts the young brides’ education and professional development. In keeping with the traditional gender roles underpinning child marriage, their role becomes confined to child-bearing and rearing, performing all household chores and working in unforgiving conditions to support the household income.

Child marriage is fundamentally fuelled by gender inequality, poverty, and cultural traditions. In many cultures, marrying a girl to an older man is not only accepted but celebrated, as it is understood that the child will be looked after and provided for during the years to come when her family can no longer do so. Thus, a child is very rarely married without her family’s consent, if not persistent encouragement. However, far from improving a girl’s future, child marriage traps its victims in a situation of dependence and abuse, perpetuating the circle of poverty and exclusion.

The numerous hardships faced by young brides often mask the complex family dynamics behind the scenes. In addition to the inherent violence attaching to sexual relations with underage non-consenting minors and the ensuing sexual abuse, child brides are often the object of frequent domestic violence. Several surveys have found that child brides are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual violence than their adult counterparts, and are more likely to find it acceptable in some circumstances. Having been entrusted to the abuser by their own family at a very young age, their agency and bargaining power is limited, resulting in them refraining from denouncing any instances of violence or abuse. This is compounded by the authorities’ tacit encouragement of violent behaviour against women under the guise of cultural acceptance, leaving victims entirely unprotected against their perpetrators. In turn, child victims of abuse live in fear of aggression and reprisals, developing mental health troubles early on in their marriages. It is for these reasons that child marriage is rightly considered a violation of human rights.

Despite public outcry and worldwide condemnation of the practice, future prospects are bleak. If the practice continues at the current rate, the number of child brides will grow to as many as 950 million by 2030. No significant strides towards ending the practice can be made without multi-sector initiatives at all levels of society. Because communities actively practising child marriage are often rural, disenfranchised and live in extreme poverty, economic empowerment is key to tackle directly the causes behind child marriage. Similarly, laws against child marriage must be reinforced, as they are of little effect if they are riddled with loopholes such as parental consent or exceptions on customary or religious grounds.  Finally, public and third sector action must be focused on empowerment through education, not only of potential victims, but also of potential abusers and family members aiding the practice.

Strict Yet Ineffective Laws – FGM in the United Kingdom

Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as cutting and female circumcision, is a procedure which involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Recent NHS data has revealed that English doctors addressed over 5,300 new cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2016 alone.

There is little doubt as to the pernicious character of FGM. Deeply rooted in gender inequality and gender discrimination, the practice targets only women and girls, saddling them with life-long sequels that are as wide-ranging as they are severe. These include but are not limited to recurring infections, pain during and beyond sexual intercourse, infertility, childbirth complications and even death. However, the most devastating trait of FGM is that it is practised on children – the same NHS data revealed that 95% of the victims recorded in 2016/17 had undergone FGM when under 18 years old, and 44% of victims were subjected to the practice when they were between 5 and 9 years old.

Despite the outlawing of FGM in the UK in 1985 and the introduction of the 2003 Female Genital Mutilation Act, penalising anyone taking a child out of the UK to be cut elsewhere with 14 years of prison, not a single successful FGM prosecution has taken place to date. In condemning this ‘scandalous’ figure, the Commons Home Affairs Committee expressed fears of the lack of convictions deterring victims to come forward.

This shocking figure not only questions the effectiveness of police efforts in tackling the practice, but also its attitudes towards FGM. Earlier this year, the West Midlands Police received backlash after stating that parents practising FGM on their children should be educated instead of prosecuted. The issue is compounded by a lack of FGM awareness in schools, and the fear of victims to expose their families to the risk of being prosecuted, and suffer retaliation. Equally, cultural barriers and community secrecy have proved an obstacle for third parties to come forward.

However, recent strides made by the government may be turning the tide. Since 2015, it became mandatory for all hospital trusts, mental health trusts and GP practices to collect and submit FGM data to the NHS FGM database – thus strengthening figures on the procedure, allowing for greater transparency. In addition, the Children’s minister announced earlier this month that the National FGM Centre, previously in financial difficulties, was set to partake in £30 million of funding from the Department for Education’s innovation fund. It is hoped that these efforts will generate momentum in the fight and prosecution of FGM, and raise awareness of the issue in communities and the broader population.


Supply chain transparency – a burden for businesses, a role for customers

Supply chains, otherwise known as the network of different actors involved in the production, manufacture, distribution and retail sale of a final product, have increasingly come under the spotlight as a key site of modern slavery. Globalisation, outsourcing and cross-border division of labour have increased competitiveness, and incentivise businesses to drive down costs and maximise profits; relegating human rights concerns to the background, and increasing the likelihood of modern slavery. This is particularly the case for products as popular as tea, coffee, coal, sugar and tobacco, which have been found to be among the top eight items with an increased risk of slavery. Intended to illuminate the hidden reality of enslaved workers behind the everyday household products displayed in local supermarkets, the supply chain transparency has been hailed as one of the many strategies to counter modern slavery, and to hold companies profiting from it accountable.

Supply chain transparency is the backbone of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, which requires every commercial organisation supplying goods or services to submit a slavery and trafficking statement for each financial year, wherein it must confirm the steps it has taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in any of its supply chains or in any part of its business, including due diligence measures and staff training. The MSA has created momentum on the issue, and inspired Australia to consider the introduction of a Modern Slavery Act with similar supply chain provisions.

Though broadly hailed as a milestone, some commentators have referred to the MSA as a missed opportunity. Indeed, the reporting requirement only applies to companies having a total turnover of £36 million. By requiring statements to be made easily accessible to the public, the MSA puts the onus on the consumer to make informed investment decisions, and motivates the everyday buyer to choose against modern slavery. The age of social media is also the age of information; and when it is so widely available, responsibility not only rests with the company, but the customer.


Child Labour – A Multi-Faceted Issue

On 12 June, lawyers, NGO workers, activists and members of the public worldwide came together to pledge their commitment to end a practice which, 15 years and countless efforts after the creation of the World Day Against Child Labour, remains widespread.

The International Labour Organization’s most recent estimate of children trapped in child labour is of 168 million, of which 85 million are in hazardous work. However, this widely cited figure is soon to reach its 5 year anniversary in 2018, prompting the question of whether the world has come any closer to eradicate child labour since it learned of its pervasiveness.

The causes behind child labour are as diverse as its manifestations. They include poverty, lack of
education, lack of laws prohibiting its practice, and even cultural perceptions. Gender also plays an important part in determining whether a child will be made to work, as girls are generally made to work at an earlier age than boys, and pushed towards domestic work in accordance with traditional gender roles.

Because child labour is often the result of legislative vacuums or poor enforcement of existing laws, it is intuitively – and mistakenly – confined to the local or national ambit. However, child labour can be increasingly attributed to global trends and the international community’s shortcomings in adequately addressing them. Just this week, the UN reported a record 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced in 2016 alone, of which children make up at least 11.25 million. The vicious circle of displacement sees thousands of families fleeing poverty or destitution, only to meet them later down the line. In such circumstances, children are often made to work in order to contribute to family expenses. Equally, the ongoing refugee crisis has shed light on the precarious situation affecting thousands of children in refugee camps in diverse European locations, many of whom turn to sex work to survive, whether of their own accord or coerced by criminal networks. Unaccompanied minors, alone and unsupervised, face a similar – if not considerably worse – fate.

There is no ‘hard and fast’ solution to the eradication of child labour. However, public awareness
campaigns, supply chain transparency, education, and comprehensive and appropriately enforceable laws can go a long way. Significant strides are being made with regard to the latter. India, among the countries reputed to have the highest child labour levels, most recently ratified the two ILO Conventions on children, namely the 1973 Minimum Age Convention and the 1999 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. Although there is a long road to elimination of child labour, concrete steps in that direction should be celebrated, and taken as a model to follow.