Child marriage: a worrying trend

little girl playing with sand

Working in the field of child protection has given me the opportunity to learn about a range of issues that affect children and young people. Despite the many support mechanisms which have been put in place to uphold the rights of young people, there are still setbacks. One of these challenges is child marriage.

A story by Evans

 

Daily Childline Kenya receives a number of cases concerning child marriage, yet many more cases still go unreported. Child marriage could be broadly defined as a marriage where at least one of the parties is a child under the age of eighteen. Both boys and girls could be affected, even though girls are more commonly the victims1. The consequences of child marriage are many, such as loss of childhood, violation of rights, impaired reproductive health, stigmatisation and abandonment. Another core negative consequence is that gender inequality grows unabated.

Even where appropriate laws to protect children against child marriage are in place, the practice persists. Societal gender inequalities reinforce the practices which dictate it is somehow acceptable for girls to marry earlier than boys. Such norms and customs may further dictate that once a girl is married, she should be regarded as a woman even though she could be just 12 years old. Male power in nearly every aspect of life restricts women’s and girls’ exercise of their rights and denies them an equal role in their households and communities. Unequal gender norms put a much higher value on boys and men than on girls and women.

Due to a social norm in some countries that girls lack the same perceived value as boys, families may disregard the benefits of educating and investing in their daughters’ development. In addition, perception of girls’ may once more shift once they reach puberty and their sexuality starts developing. Child marriage is often seen as a way to ensure the girl does not engage in premarital sex. The duty to protect the girl from sexual harassment and violence is transferred from father to husband.

Poverty is a major contributing factor to child marriage

Poverty is a major contributing factor to child marriage. Many parents genuinely believe that marriage will secure their daughters’ futures and that it is in their best interest. On the other hand, girls may be viewed as an economic burden, a means for settling familial debts and disputes, or a tool for securing social, economic or political alliances. Girls’ vulnerability to child marriage has also increased in situations of humanitarian crises resulting in family and social structures being disrupted.

In times of conflict and natural disaster, parents may marry off their young daughters as a last resort, either to bring the family some income or to offer the girl some sort of protection. These girls are sometimes referred to as ‘famine brides’, for example in food-insecure Kenya.

Social norms and perceptions that tolerate inequality in gender roles and responsibilities must change. Once parents and communities understand the irreparable harm that the practice of child marriage can inflict on girls, practices can shift.

Girls in Africa are still held back by child marriage

Sub-Saharan Africa has the second highest rate of early and forced marriages, with 14.3 million girls married before the age of 182. Girls in that region are still held back by some harmful traditional practices such as child marriage, female genital mutilation and sex in exchange for food, mostly in drought-hit eastern Africa and central Africa3. It is impossible to achieve gender equality without dealing with the long-held belief about societal gender roles4. According to Plan International, 39% of girls in Africa are forced into marriages4.

Ending child marriage by 2030 is one of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by world leaders in 2015 during a UN Summit in New York. It is imperative for governments to draw up and fully enforce policies that end child marriage and create alternatives for girls and their families. There is an opportunity for civil society organisations and governments to work on an implementable framework to reduce the vice of child marriage. If governments and civil society don’t act now, the number of women married in childhood could increase.

 

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1http://www.unicef.org/protection/57929_58008.html

2http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Women/WRGS/ForcedMarriage/NGO/PlanInternational2.pdf

3 https://plan-international.org/annual-review-2012#download-options

4Plan Kenya, 2012, Because I am a Girl: Country Report

The sources of information in this blog post also come from the UN Department of Public Information (2004) Basic Facts, Kenyan Constitutions, UNHRC Report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Childline Kenya Annual Report 2015, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child 1994, https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/MarryingTooYoung.pdf