Throughout the world, marriages are greeted with celebration, from wedding cakes and party favors to fine clothes and flower bouquets. Yet when a member of the wedding party is still a child, the occasion is cause for concern, not applause. Children’s rights activists estimate that there are more than 50 million girls under the age of 18 who are married throughout the world. From the girls as young as 14 married off at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas to ones sold off because of poverty in Africa, over 100 million young girls will be married as children in the next decade.
These children are known as child brides. While marriage under the age of 18 is unlawful in many countries, according to the United Nations Population Fund, child marriage is practiced in a quarter of all nations. Because it is virtually impossible to eliminate the tradition, millions of girls worldwide endure and undergo traumatic psychological and physical abuse by becoming a child bride, in some countries as early as 4 and 5 years old.
Many children are forced into marriage due to poverty, family pressure, and culture. Often they are compelled to marry men several times their age who have had many sexual partners, exposing them to severe health risks.
The practice, prevalent in relatively high numbers in South Asia and West Africa, and to a lesser degree, in Latin America and the Caribbean, is a serious violation of human rights. It forces children to take on responsibilities for which they are physically and psychologically unprepared. Further many are forced to marry and have no control over the choice of their husband.
At almost 77 percent, Niger has the highest recorded percentage in the world of marriages that occur before girls reach the age of 18. Researchers at the Population Council have indicated that “approximately one out of seven girls in the developing world (excluding China) marries before their fifteenth birthday.” In Amhara, Ethiopia, over 50 percent of girls are married before the age of 15.
There are many reasons for this practice. Many cultures place great importance on the girl’s “purity,” referring to her virginity. Young marriage eases the fear of potential illicit relationships. Early marriages are also used as a social alliance or transaction between families. Some families marry off their girls to help ease the effects of poverty. This however, contributes to an ongoing cycle of poverty. Compared to unmarried girls, child brides tend to remain in poverty.
Child brides’ access to education is either eliminated or reduced, and in developing countries, they face health complications leading to death from premature pregnancy, child bearing, and are exposed to the increased likeliness of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Young brides are also vulnerable to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by their husband and/or relatives.
In some cultures, girls who escape abuse by running away become prey to honor killings. Their male relatives perceive the woman’s decision to flee as a shame to the family. Other times, these escaped child brides can fall prey to or are lured into the sex trade by people who offer them safety and better living conditions.
Attempting to improve and curb early marriage for girls is a mission that requires education not only for children on the harms caused by early marriage but for their parents as well. Education has proved to decrease child marriage in many societies. For example, in India, secondary education has reduced child marriages by up to two-thirds.
Advocating for an end to child marriage on a grassroots level by engaging local communities and the implementation of existing laws designed to prevent the marriage of children must be made a priority. Perhaps the greatest key to changing this practice which is deeply entrenched in many cultures is engagement among nations and continued development, particularly focusing on young girls who are already married.