Last year, I wrote a blog about the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women discussing some of the societal and health impacts of violence against women. On this year’s annual day of observance, I’d like to share an issue highly related to violence against women that I believe is gaining traction globally: ending child marriage.
(A photo I took of a mother and her daughter in Udaipur, India).
In international human rights law, “the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone under the age of 18 unless adulthood is legally attained earlier under the applicable country law.” Under this internationally applicable definition, child marriage is generally defined as any marriage involving at least one individual under the age of 18, and this happens to 39,000 girl children daily. You can find a discussion of why child marriage has been a persistent social practice here. Often, the girl is from a poor household, has not completed her education, and is married to a man much older than her (without her consent or input). This context is rife with opportunity for physical and emotional abuse, because of the gender, age and economic power differences between men and their child brides.
As a side note to the discussion of intentional violence against women related to child marriage, it is absolutely critical to understand that even absent of intimate partner violence, the health costs of child marriage are devastating. This is primarily because of the association between child marriage and subsequently early first pregnancies, and the high rate of morbidity and mortality associated with adolescent pregnancy:
“According to the UN, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls aged 15-19 years in developing countries. Of the 16 million adolescent girls who give birth every year, about 90% are already married.” (World Health Organization)
Compounding the potentially fatal consequences of adolescent pregnancy, child marriages “are commonly abusive.” Worldwide, intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious problem for women; “30% of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner.” Women married before age 18 are at an elevated risk, and are not only more likely to experience domestic violence, but are also more likely to believe that their husbands are “sometimes justified” in beating them and to exhibit symptoms characteristic of child sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Because of the public policies, cultural values, gender norms and economic realities of places where child marriage is prevalent, girls are put in a position of powerlessness and are unlikely to be able to protect themselves, seek legal help, access counseling and support services, or ultimately to remove themselves from an abusive situation. Outsiders’ cultural critique and international pressure to child marriage have thus far been ineffective in ending the practice.
Then there’s the good news. In the year since I last wrote about the International Day to End Violence against women, the practice of child marriage hasn’t ended, but I’ve been beginning to hear inspiring stories about communities deciding for themselves to protect their girl children. One locally-led movement (including over 20 communities) is catching on in Malawi, for instance. These communities use culturally-resonant arguments and a newly community-defined legal age of marriage (21!) to promote the goal of having every girl attend college. In addition to those changes, the Malawian communities have decided on punishments for parents of children whom are married before 21: ‘”They have to give five goats to the chief,” says another local official, Roben Ndrama, “and eight chickens to the village headmen.”’ In Malawi, these community-led girl empowerment programs are working to provide alternatives to child marriage, and to change the cost-benefit calculation for parents by introducing fines for violation of the communities’ rules.
On today’s Day to End Violence Against Women, I’m thankful for communities that have listened to the voices of their girls and women, and are responding by moving away from child marriage, and thus towards creating a society that is safe for everyone.
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