What is child marriage?
Child marriages occur when one or both parties are under the age of eighteen. The emerging consensus of international human rights standards is that the minimum age of marriage should be set at 18. A minimum age of marriage along with enforcement of a prohibition on forced marriage (irrespective of the age of either party) aims to protect both girls and boys from child marriage, although the practice affects girls more frequently and often coincides with other rights violations; including but not limited to domestic violence and impeded access to reproductive health care and education.
How many girls are affected by child marriage?
Every year 14 million girls are married worldwide. One in seven girls in the developing world is married before her 15th birthday – some as young as eight or nine. In 2010, over 67 million women ages 20-24 had been married as girls, and, if the trend continues, 142 million will be married by 2020.
The top twenty “hot spots” of child marriage, or countries with the highest prevalence, are: Niger, Chad, Bangladesh, Guinea, Central African Republic, Mali, Guinea, Nepal, Mozambique, Uganda, Burkina Faso, India, Ethiopia, Liberia, Yemen, Cameroon, Eritrea, Malawi, Nicaragua, Nigeria, and Zambia.
Over 40 countries globally have a prevalence of child marriage of 30 per cent or higher. Two out of five girls are married as children in South Asia and Central and West Africa. Most of these girls are poor, less-educated, and living in rural areas.
Abuses associated with child marriage
Child marriages violate many human rights; including to education, freedom from violence, reproductive rights, access to reproductive and sexual health care, employment, freedom of movement, and the right to consensual marriage. The testimonies of the children and women Human Rights Watch has interviewed illustrate the profoundly detrimental impact on their physical and mental well-being, and their ability to live free of violence.
Consequences of child marriage have lasting effects beyond adolescence as they struggle with the health effects of getting pregnant too young and too often, their lack of education and economic independence, domestic violence, and marital rape.
Child marriage directly threatens the health and well-being of girls: complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the main cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15-19 in developing countries. Girls aged 15 to 20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as those in their 20s, and girls under the age of 15 are five times as likely to die.
These consequences are due largely to girls’ physical immaturity where the pelvis and birth canal are not fully developed. Complications in labor are exacerbated where emergency obstetric services are scarce, as is the case in many societies where child marriage is prevalent.
Pregnancy for adolescent girls poses a serious risk of developing obstetric fistula, since their smaller pelvises make them prone to obstructed labor. Fistula leaves its victims with urine or fecal incontinence that causes infection, pain, and a bad smell.
A child born to a girl under 18 has a 60 percent greater chance of dying in the first year of life than one born to a woman 19 and older.
Child marriage frequently ends a girl’s education forever. Girls who marry young are often expected to take on responsibilities at home that are prioritized over attending school.
A lack of education limits girls' choices and opportunities throughout their lives, not just when they are children. The price of this exclusion is often poverty. In Yemen, one girl who married at the age of 12 told Human Rights Watch:
All that I’m good for is to be a mother, and a home maker.... I’m illiterate. They didn’t teach us anything. If they did, at least I would have benefitted from something.
Without education, girls and adult women have fewer opportunities to financially provide for themselves and their families. Research shows how limited education may make girls and women more vulnerable to persistent poverty when their spouses die, abandon, or divorce them.
Violence against married girls
Married girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 19 with low levels of education are at a much greater risk of domestic and sexual violence from their spouses than older and more educated women. Research cites spousal age difference, typical of child marriage, as a significant risk factor associated with violence and sexual abuse against girls.
Marital rape is common in South Sudan, although it is not recognized by law. One girl told us her husband raped her, aided by his brothers:
I had refused to have sex with him, but he forced me. My brothers-in-law used to lock me up in the house during the day so that I don’t go anywhere, and so that I can have sex with him.
Another told Human Rights Watch that her husband physically, emotionally, and sexually abused her. She said:
I had fibroids and was in a lot of pain. Sex was painful. If I told my husband I had pain, he would get out shouting that he was going to look for sex elsewhere because I had refused him. Sometimes he would have sex with me anyway.
In 2010, the case of Elham Mahdi Al-Assi, a 12-year-old girl in Yemen, caught international media attention when she died three days after she was married to a much older man. Her death was the result of severe bleeding caused by tears to her genital and anal area. Elham's mother told the Associated Press that her daughter had complained that her husband tied her up and raped her. This was after Elham’s mother warned her that failure to consummate the marriage would bring her family shame.
Non-consensual sex can have especially devastating mental health consequences for young girls because they are at a formative stage of psychological development. Child brides also often face emotional abuse and discrimination in the homes of their husbands and in-laws. Confined to a home that may be removed from their hometown and familiar surroundings, they are isolated from friends and family.
What happens when girls seek help after suffering violence in their marriage?
International human rights standards recognize the right of women and girls to live free from physical, mental, and sexual violence. However, in many countries where child marriage is an accepted practice, governments also fail to criminalize domestic violence and marital rape. Girls in child marriages, already vulnerable due to their age and alienated due to their gender and low social status, are thus denied the protection from their governments they so greatly need.
Child marriage is more prevalent in jurisdictions that generally offer fewer protections for women and girls. Yemen currently has no minimum age for marriage and girls of any age can and are being married. After her husband raped her, 11-year-old Reem al-Numeri in Yemen attempted to seek a divorce only to be told by the judge “we don’t divorce little girls.”
Where legal provisions do exist to protect girls from child marriage or related forms of violence, authorities often fail to enforce that protection or to prosecute perpetrators. Cases of domestic violence in Afghanistan show that many women and girls are afraid to seek help from justice or security departments because they fear further abuse or being forcibly returned home.
Rangina Y., married at the age of 13 in Afghanistan, explained her distrust for courts and judges. After running away from the physical and verbal abuse of her in-laws, she faced pressure from President Karzai, hostility from powerful members of parliament and extralegal arguments by the head of the Family Court to return to her husband. Rangina Y. told Human Rights Watch: “I don’t want to go back. I can’t go back. They want to kill me.” Failing to receive protection and enforcement of national marriage laws, women and girls in situations such as Rangina’s have little reason to trust the state or government to protect them.
What happens when girls try to resist early marriage?
Girls who refuse to accept or stay in forced marriages, or who elope because they want to marry someone not chosen or approved of by their families, are often at risk of violence, imprisonment, and in extreme cases, may be killed by their families or husbands.
In South Sudan, local women’s rights organizations pointed out to Human Rights Watch that society is generally tolerant of such punishment because the girl is seen as having gone against her family’s wishes and societal norms. As a result, perpetrators are rarely held to account, perpetuating a culture of violence against women in the country.
One South Sudanese girl, who married at 15, told Human Rights Watch that she was in year five of school and wanted to finish her education, but her uncles beat her and her mother to force her to marry a 75-year-old man:
This man went to my uncles and paid a dowry of 80 cows. I resisted the marriage. They threatened me. They said, “If you want your siblings to be taken care of, you will marry this man.” I said he is too old for me. They said, “You will marry this old man whether you like it or not because he has given us something to eat.” They beat me so badly. They also beat my mother because she was against the marriage.
Eleven girls Human Rights Watch spoke to in South Sudan said their families restricted their movements after they became engaged. One told Human Rights Watch:
I am now confined at home. My family does not allow me to leave home because they think I will get another man…. I don’t even go to the market anymore or see my friends.
Another problem in protecting victims of forced marriage and enabling them to access justice is lack of coordination between relevant government ministries. For example, in South Sudan, Human Rights Watch documented that there are no guidelines on how the authorities should handle these cases, and ministries respond to cases in an ad hoc manner, often without offering any real solutions to the girls who go to them for protection. In the end, their inefficiency helps perpetuate child marriages and related abuses against girls.
What work has Human Rights Watch conducted on child marriage?
Human Rights Watch has cited cases of child marriage in Bangladesh, Chad, Egypt, India, Iraq, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Uganda, and Uzbekistan, and interviewed women and girls who experienced child marriage in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Yemen, and most recently South Sudan, where we found that almost half of the girls 15-19 were married.
Human Rights Watch is also a member of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.
How does Human Rights Watch recommend we end the practice of child marriage?
Governments can mitigate some of the worst abuses linked to child marriage by:
- Setting and enforcing a minimum age for marriage at 18;
- Requiring verification of the full and meaningful consent of both spouses;
- Establishing and enforcing compulsory marriage registers;
- Prosecuting perpetrators of forced marriage;
- Ensuring that marriages concluded under force may be voided, annulled, or dissolved without undue burden placed on the victim(s);
- Safeguard by law a victim’s right to seek financial compensation after voiding, annulling, divorcing, or otherwise dissolving the marriage and protect the rights of children born out of such a marriage;
- Providing training to law enforcement officials on gender discrimination and violence against women, including investigations into child marriages;
- Recognizing marital rape as a criminal offense;
- Increasing access to education for girls, including by providing incentives for families to keep their daughters in school;
- Increasing and improving access to reproductive healthcare for all girls and women in rural and urban areas by allocating greater resources from national health expenditure and more personnel;
- Ensuring that access to emergency obstetric care, including monitoring of labor, trained birth attendants, newborn care, and contraception, is available to all girls and women in rural and urban areas;
- Raising awareness among health workers and the public on the importance of registering births, including home deliveries;
- And providing continuing formal education and vocational training opportunities for married girls and women.