Last month, Tonga’s Ministry of Justice partnered with a local women and girls’ rights group, the Talitha Project, to launch a campaign to end child marriage in the Polynesian nation of 106,000 people. The “Let Girls be Girls!” campaign calls for repealing sections of the law that permit children to marry before the age of 18 – as early as age 15 – if they have parental permission. This comes as the Ministry of Justice is consulting on amendments to marriage laws, including raising the marriage age.
There have been more than 100 marriages of children in Tonga in the last two years. Girls have often been compelled by parents to marry, sometimes because of teenage pregnancy, or simply because they were seen with boys. Local organizations have also documented cases where girls were forced to marry their rapists.
Ending child marriage is the right thing to do.
Research consistently shows that child marriage is deeply harmful to children. When girls marry young, they often have early pregnancies which put them and their babies at risk of serious health consequences, including death. Married girls are at heightened risk of violence, including marital rape, domestic violence, and emotional abuse. They often leave school permanently, denying them their right to education, and increasing chances that they and their children will live in poverty.
Right now, there is global momentum to end child marriage. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 includes a commitment for all countries to end child marriage by 2030. Countries such as Malawi and Nepal are moving ahead with anti-child marriage legislative efforts. Many other countries have developed, or are developing, national action plans for how to achieve the goal by 2030.
The Tongan government has already made encouraging steps towards ending child marriage, such as the current campaign. Last year, Deputy Speaker of the House Lord Tu’iafitu called the existing law “embarrassing.”
Now, the government should follow through on this progress and raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both boys and girls. Tonga has a chance to help lead the global effort to end child marriage.