In 2010, Nigerian senator Ahmad Sani Yerima shocked rights groups by marrying a (reportedly) 13-year-old Egyptian bride – he was 49 at the time. He argued that the very fact of being married meant that the girl was “of age” and invoked religion as a defence (though many fellow Muslims derided him for this).
Most of the nation squirmed, because Yerima is and was an outlier, but his arguments echo common ones in favour of child marriage.
Child marriage as a practice is banned in 88 percent of countries in worldwide, but nonetheless remains a global problem. It is in direct violation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that marriage should be ‘entered only with the full and free consent of the intending spouses.’
Prevalence of Child Marriage – girls under 18 (Click here to see the full interactive map)
Prevalence of Child Marriage – girls under 15 (Click here to see the full interactive map)
In Africa, it is mostly a rural phenomenon and the country most affected is Niger, where more than one in three girls under 15 is married and an astonishing 75% of under 18s. Chronic food and water insecurity means that families are forced to take desperate measures to survive, including marrying off young daughters to bring money in and have one less mouth to feed. In fact, child marriage is so prevalent in Niger that it masks the reality that some children are actually being trafficked – to North Africa or even to Western Europe.
It could be argued that child marriage in its own right is a form of modern slavery, with no consent given by the young participants. Compulsory domestic labour and the dangerous work of pregnancy and childbirth are expected from child brides.
As well as Niger, African countries such as Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique and South Sudan all have high rates of child marriage. The last is a good example of the limitations of the law – in South Sudan the 2008 Child Act sets marriage age at 18, with the consent of both parties – but with minimal enforcement the practice just goes ahead anyway.
As with practices like female genital mutilation, there are many sensitivities, and sometimes a feeling that initiatives on child marriage form a Western liberal attack on African cultures. This is a position that many African rights activists refute, arguing that child marriage is instead part of a patriarchal tradition or borne from resource pressures, rather than intrinsically African. In fact, child marriage has been common across cultures, from the ancient Romans through to the North American colonies, where there are records of girls as young as 9 being married off.
Is there a risk that an all-out offensive against the culture of child marriage could risk driving it further underground? Perhaps not, if handled with local expertise, respect and understanding for the drivers that underpin child marriage, which are so often economic.
It’s a battle worth fighting; there is good evidence that securing a decrease in child marriage would have multiple positive impacts for the girls (and sometimes boys also) involved, allowing them to continue in education. In Niger, about 85% of the adult female population are unable to read. Child marriage isn’t the only factor but it’s a major contributor.
It’s clear that children cannot consent in these marriages, which means that sex within these marriages is in practice often statutory rape. Being separated from their own families also means that many child brides face isolation and domestic abuse.
Meanwhile, pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of maternal and infant mortality for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years. Childbirth before the body has matured can risk the baby, as well as the future health of the mother, with problems such as obstetric fistula commonly encountered – and leading to problems such as lifetime incontinence, which affect people’s ability to participate in society.
Poverty is inevitably a driver for child marriage, with families sometimes forced to rely on the dowry from marrying off a child as a desperately needed source of income to allow the rest of the family to survive. Is it realistic to try to tackle child marriage while this degree of poverty exists? Perhaps not in its entirety, but inroads might at least be made by making families aware, where they do have any choices, about repercussions for their children’s futures.
Tradition and religious belief can also be a factor, with some Hindu scriptures sometimes interpreted as saying that children should be married before puberty (child marriage is a larger problem in India than in any African country).
In many other cultures, it’s also commonly perceived that reaching puberty is a sign of reaching the maturity needed to marry or have sex – regardless of that fact that girls hit puberty at different ages and may be in very different places mentally.
There can be also a disconnect in law between the ages at which marriage and sexual activity are allowed. Tanzania is a case in point, where girls can get married at 14 with court agreement, or otherwise at 15 with parental agreement, but with an actual age of consent of 18. It seems naïve to assume that such marriages are not being consummated…
Countering the idea that child marriage is an indispensable part of tradition are the likes of Chief Inkosi Kachindamoto, the female leader in Malawi who recently announced the annulment of over 300 child marriages and ensured that the children were sent back to school. In fact, Malawi as a country effectively outlawed child marriage earlier this year when it passed legislation to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18.
In Addis Ababa last year, the African Union’s African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, published a declaration of the ending of child marriage in Africa, which is worded strongly, but will be of limited impact without implementation.
Post-2015, the Sustainable Development Goals are what will inform global development, and currently the ending of child marriage looks set to be a key part of goal 5, “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. If this is the case, hopefully progress can be made both on legislation to tackle child marriage as well as plans to enforce that legislation.
However, it’s also crucial to recognise that child marriage does not happen in a vacuum – it is economically driven, and attempts to end the practice entirely will be tough without success in tackling some of its root causes.
Every victory means a different future for a girl like Destaye, in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. Married at 11, despite being keen to continue in education, her future looks bleak. Her older husband Addisu says “I serve as a priest. I didn’t want a girl who had finished school. Girls who have finished school might not stay virgins. They are too old to be married to a priest.”
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For every Destaye who is allowed to take the path that she wants, the future for all of us will be brighter.