As kids we play at make-believe. At what if. It’s part of how we stimulate our imagination and begin to forge our identity. Whether it’s pretending to be our parents, teachers or older siblings, we absorb and imitate so much of adult life. We pretend to ‘to go to market’ and buy food, or to look after our make-believe children, even to get married? It’s fun at the time, but we know its play, it’s made up. Right?
Wrong. While some children have the luxury of pretending to walk down the aisle, don a veil or cook for their “spouse”, for other children it’s their reality.
Over 700million women alive today were married as children and almost 1/3rd (250million) were married before the age of 15. 250 million married before the age of 15. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of the UK, France, Germany and Spain – combined!
So why are children being married and how is this a form of gender based violence?
According to the UN, child marriage is the formal or informal union of two individuals where one or both are under the age of 18. Although child marriage affects boys too, girls are disproportionately married off making it a form of gender based violence. As a child you cannot give legal consent therefore such marriages are forced and coercive.
Why does child marriage happen?
- What’s Love got to do with it?
Romantic love, in many cultures and traditions, has little, if anything, to do with marriage. Throughout the centuries marriage has been a way of strategically joining families and communities. This could be to stop wars, to increase wealth, for political gain/protection, social status or other reasons. Marriage in this sense is regarded as a contract between families, not individuals. As children cannot give consent, it leaves the power to marry or not marry in the hands of their parents and families and increases the possibility of exploitation.
2. Poverty vs. Provision
Over half of all girls from the poorest families in the developing world are married as children. For poor families marrying off daughters means one less mouth to feed. In some cases it is a way to manage debt, or, where a dowry or bride-price is received, financially lucrative. Groom’s families often pay less if the bride is young giving them a financial incentive for child marriages.
3. Sexuality and Safety
In many patriarchal communities female sexuality and sexual conduct are intrinsically linked to family honour and are therefore things to be controlled. Considering the strategic uses of marriage, unwanted pregnancies or sexual misconduct are seen to bring families into disrepute.
For some cultures girls become women after their first menstruation. Certainly this isn’t the best measure of adulthood, as girls can start their periods from as young as nine, but it does mean these girls are in an in-between phase: no longer children but not yet wives, leaving them vulnerable to sexual advances and other abuse. Marriage gives girls a new, “safer” status as a wife or mother, while also controlling their sexual conduct.
In communities where female genital mutilation is practiced, once a girl is cut she is eligible for marriage.
Child marriage might also occur during times of conflict or natural/humanitarian crises. Marriage can be seen as a way to cope with violence and poverty and even give the possibility of security or safety for the family.
The Impact of Child marriage:
Child brides very soon become child mothers. Child marriage encourages premature and continuous child bearing in turn preventing girls from gaining an education or from working outside the domestic sphere, while privileging boys’ education and work opportunities. It also keeps girls dependent on their husbands/husband’s family removing their independence and autonomy. Child mothers are likely to suffer severe health complications such as obstetric fistula and maternal mortality because they are often physically under-developed and therefore not ready for sexual intercourse or child birth. Over 70,000 girls between 15-18 die in child birth every year, while girls who give birth under the age of 18 are 60% more likely to lose their baby or have a still birth compared to those over 19. According to UNICEF even if the child survives they are likely to suffer from a low birth weight and late cognitive and physical development. The levels of domestic violence child brides face is drastic compared to women over 18, as children have less negotiating power or strength compared to adults. Child brides are often separated from their communities and friends, which can have huge psychological effects in turn threatening their mental and emotional wellbeing.
Although data shows that the prevalence of child marriage is decreasing, it isn’t decreasing fast enough. Child marriage is a form of child abuse as well as gender based violence. Working with communities to change cultural attitudes is essential. If 50% of a countries population isn’t able to work, that country will never fully develop. Girl’s education and financial empowerment means better local, national and international development. It’s also important to challenge how we view female sexuality and challenge communities that privilege male sexuality above women’s. Child Marriage is decreasing but with sustained work we can make it disappear.
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