Child Marriage: a violation of basic human rights

Child Marriage is the formal or informal union of a girl or boy under the age of 18[1]. With the world continuously developing and evolving, we might think that child marriage is no longer a problem. However, despite being prohibited by international law, child marriage continues to exist in every part of the world.

Numbers and statistics

Twelve million girls worldwide marry before the age of 18 each year, which equals to almost one every 2 seconds. It is projected that by the year 2030, more than 150 million girls will become child brides if no action is taken to stop it[2]. In Lebanon, according to the latest data available from 2009, 6% of Lebanese girls are married before the age of 18, whereas 1% are married before the age of 15[3]. There is no unified minimum legal age for marriage in Lebanon as the Lebanese Civil Code does not regulate personal status matters. These are instead regulated by different personal status laws differing from one religion to another.

Child marriage not only occurs in poor, third-world countries but in high-income countries too. In the United States, the majority of all 50 states have an exception in the law allowing children to marry before the age of 18. In the European Union, as of 2017, only four countries do not tolerate any exception to the minimum legal age for marriage set at 18 years old[4].

Causes of child marriage

The absence of laws protecting children or the lack of enforcement of existing laws is not the only cause for child marriage. Child marriage is mostly driven by social underdevelopment. For instance, in some societies, it is considered that younger wives are more obedient, giving more control to the men in the marriage. For some cultures, the older the girl gets, the higher the dowry gets for her parents (a dowry is the wealth transferred from the bride’s family to the groom or his family). Some may even think that marrying a girl at an early age will avoid the parents any risk of shame or dishonor with regards to their daughter’s sexuality or future relationships[5].

Another important factor contributing to child marriage is poverty. When poverty is acute, marriage allows parents to reduce their expenses by having one less person to feed and clothe. Girls themselves might believe that in such situations, marriage is a solution to secure their future.

Effects of COVID-19 pandemic

School closures, economic destitution, and overall devastating living conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led and continue to lead to a rise in the number of child marriages[6]. Harsh and long lockdowns worldwide left millions of daily laborers and workers unemployed, pushing millions of people more into poverty. Gabriele Szabo, senior gender policy advisor at Save the Children UK, considers that poverty caused by the pandemic will give a rise in the number of child marriages in the poorest households[7]. They will have to choose between forcing their daughters into early marriages or going hungry. This pandemic threatens years of work and progress on child marriage.

Consequences of child marriage

Child marriage is a problem that should not be taken lightly. Children victims of early or forced marriages carry lifelong emotional scars. Besides the moral and emotional consequences, children married early are more likely to experience violence, abuse, and forced sexual relations due to unequal power relations. Consequently, they become more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Pregnancies at an early age are also one of the most dangerous consequences of child marriage.

How to end it

Ending child marriage is a process that takes years of efforts at the national and international level. The most important steps to be taken include:

  • Demand governments to set the legal marriage age at 18 and, more importantly, enforce child protection laws.
  • Increase communities’ awareness on children’s rights.
  • Help, encourage, and support girls to get an education in order to give them more choices and opportunities in life. This allows them to play active roles in their communities and break the cycle of poverty.
  • Integrate and improve sexuality education for the younger generation. It is essential for both girls and boys to understand their sexual health and well-being better, allowing them to make informed decisions.
  • Educate families on sexual and reproductive health.

Child, early, and forced marriages or unions are a global problem happening across many different countries, cultures, religions, and ethnicities. It is a problem of complex nature with socio-cultural and structural factors supporting it. Child marriage not only violates children’s rights, but also places them at high risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse. To eliminate child marriage by the year 2030, as set out in the Agenda for Sustainable Development, global efforts should be increased. It is unfortunate that by the year 2021, child marriage is still stealing away the innocent years of children’s lives across the globe.

[1] Child Marriage, unicef.org

[2] Child Marriage, plan-international.org

[3] Child Marriage – Lebanon, girlsnotbrides.org

[4] Fast Facts: 10 facts illustrating why we must end child marriage, unicef.org

[5] Why does child marriage happen? girlsnotbrides.org

[6] Sophie Cousins, 2.5 million more child marriages due to COVID-19 pandemic, The Lancet, V. 396, 2020.

[7] Ibid.

Marina Ibrahim

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