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.