Child Marriage Series Part 1

Rights at Risk: Child Marriage, Causes and Effects 

By Surbhi Mahajan 

The Problem

Child and forced marriage are two of the oldest manifestations of violent discrimination against adolescent girls and young women across the world. Over the years, its prevalence has somewhat decreased in many countries according to the Economic Impacts of Child Marriage report[1]. However, it still remains far too high in Africa and South Asia. While they are mainly (but not exclusively) prevalent in rural areas and small towns, forced marriages of young women is a phenomenon that cuts across class, caste (in case of South Asia, especially India), religion, and region in the country. Both are egregious human rights violations, which rest upon denial of individual agency.

Statistically speaking, UNICEF’S recent report[2] states that 30% of young women are married before 18 in Central, Southern and Eastern Africa and above 40% in Western Africa. The latter region also has the highest prevalence of marriage before 15 in the world. Country wise numbers certainly vary across the continent, with as low as 2% in Tunisia to as high as 76% in Niger. Moreover, African nations account for 17 of the 20 countries[3] with the highest rates of child marriage globally.

Likewise, International Centre for Research on Women study (ICRW; 2013)[4] noted that the largest number of child brides resides in South Asia. While there has been a marked decline for marriages involving girls under age 15, dropping from 32% to 17%; the marriage of girls under age 18, however, is still commonplace.[5] In 2007-2008, as many as 42.9% of the surveyed segment of married women in the age group 20-24 years were married before eighteen in India.[6] According to a recent analysis of 2011 census data, as many as 7.84 million (65%) married children were female, reinforcing the fact that girls are significantly more disadvantaged.

The reasons behind its subsistence are multi-fold and complex. To put it in context, both child and forced marriage typically epitomise the desire of a family to stay within community social norms and garner greater social approval. As part of this desire, there is a strongly held belief that marriage will protect girls from sexual assault and harassment. The extent of which becomes even more evident when, say, in October 2012, India’s infamous Khap Panchayats in Haryana vocally demanded that child marriages be made legal as a solution to the increasing number of rape incidences in the state. Moreover, there is an overwhelming concern for the idea of girls’ and women’s ‘purity’[7] which also explains gender inequality and discrimination in South Asia and across Africa.

The Effects

The convoluted mesh of structural edifice, that is, the dominant patriarchal relations, inequitable social norms and expectations, which pre-determine gender roles, and restrict individual and community attitudes, fuelled by economic pressures, only perpetuates the kind of violence that may have intergenerational impacts. In addition to structural issues and social constructions, a lack of access to educational opportunities creates vulnerability to violence and acts as a hindrance to adolescent girls and young women realising their full potential as individuals. Such a social positioning: inhibits any scope for personal development, restricts mobility outside the household, and visibility in public spaces, restricts decision making, risks sexual abuse as they are unable to effectively negotiate safer sex (and consent as a concept is close to absent, results in early pregnancies and even maternal deaths. And more importantly, it pushes individuals as a group, conditioned as they are, into further reinforcing the deeply held beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours which justify male dominance and strengthen institutions that discriminate against women.

Attempted Solutions:

Despite several progressive legal provisions, there has been no radical change on the ground, which is indicative of how traditional gender norms and age-old customs are deeply embedded and internalised. It is the predominance of such social norms and attitudes that violence against adolescent girls and young women remains pervasive and normalised, a fact also concluded by the 2013 Verma Commission report (in the Indian context).

This is not to say that no efforts have been made. There has been a government response in the form of cash transfer schemes and several other awareness raising programmes and campaigns. At the international level, the governments are also a state party to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and many such laws and provisions. Earlier this year, at the conclusion of the 28th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, leaders held a high-level meeting on an AU campaign to end child marriage.[8]

Beyond the state, the women’s rights groups and civil society groups have been working consistently at the community level to ensure girls and women become vocal and visible in claiming their rights and demanding justice. However, as modernisation makes inroads, one also notices a certain rigid form of push back from society (individuals and community) at large, in a manner such that young women and girls still remain excluded from participating in decision-making processes regarding their lives and bodies.

It is this repeated onslaught of violence through social norms which creates an imperative to bring into focus how a lack of choice and consent in their lived realities leads to exclusion and a larger marginalisation of their very basic citizenry rights (equality, dignity, freedom from violence); and simultaneously begin to change the discourse that uses customs and social norms as an excuse to deny these rights.

[1] Economic Impacts of Child Marriage: Global Synthesis Report. ICRW (2017). Available at: http://www.costsofchildmarriage.org/

[2] Accelerating Efforts to Eliminate Child Marriage in Africa. UNICEF (2017)

[3] http://www.girlsnotbrides.org/where-does-it-happen/

[4] Asia Child Marriage Initiative: Summary of Research in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. International Center for Research on Women, (2013)

[5] Ending Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects. UNICEF. 2014.

[6] Child Marriage in India – An analysis of available data. UNICEF (2012)

[7] Seema Jayachandran, ‘The Roots of Gender Inequality in Developing Countries,’ Annual Review of Economics (November 2014).

[8] Agnes Odhiambo, ‘Scourge of Child Marriage in Africa Continues,’ HRW. 2017. Available at:   https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/01/31/scourge-child-marriage-africa-continues

Surbhi Mahajan is a freelance researcher, working on issues of gender and development, human rights, resourcing women’s rights for the last seven years. Follow her at @surbhi_mahajan.

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