This week’s blog was written by Naoise Murphy. Naoise is a student of English Literature and French at Durham University.
Nujood Ali was nine when she was forced by her parents to marry a man in his thirties. Although he had promised to delay having sex with Nujood before she was ready, her new husband raped her on their wedding night, and continued to do so for two months, during which time she was also regularly beaten by her in-laws. This horrific narrative, however shocking, is not uncommon, nor is it specific to Yemen where this particular case unfolded. One third of the world’s girls are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15. While child brides are found in every region in the world, the practice is most common in poor, rural communities, mostly concentrated in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Fortunately, Nujood’s story has a positive ending. After two months of abuse, she made her escape, finding her way to a court to seek a divorce. She won her case, was begrudgingly accepted back into her family home, and is now a poster child for the fight against child marriage in Yemen and all over the world.
Poverty is probably the primary cause of child marriage. Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to marry before the age of 18 as girls in higher income households. The reasoning of parents is easy to understand; marrying off a child means one less person to feed, clothe and educate. In communities where a ‘bride price’ is paid, it is a welcome source of income. Where the bride’s family are expected to pay a dowry, they often have to pay less if the bride is young and uneducated.
Traditional gender roles have a lot to answer for in this debate. The sad truth is that girls are simply valued less than boys. If you think of children in terms of economic return on investment, boys traditionally have more to contribute to the family. Girls are seen as a burden, brought up only to marry into another family. The quicker this happens, the less parents have to lose.
And in many communities, girls are burdensome in another, more disturbing way. In (unfortunately prevalent) climates of predatory rape culture, this is the choice; leaving a child vulnerable to rape by a stranger, on her way to school perhaps, or marriage. While child marriage is nothing more than a legitimised form of rape, it is viewed by some cultures as the best way to protect young girls. If a girl is raped before marriage, her prospects are ruined. No man will marry a non-virgin, so she is left dependent on her family for the rest of her life.
Child marriage has a devastating effect on a girl’s health, wellbeing and future. Physically, there are serious medical consequences of forcing girls into sex and childbirth before they are physically mature – ripped vaginal walls and internal ruptures called fistulas which can lead to life-long incontinence. Marrying men with much more sexual experience means that child brides face a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. They have very little knowledge of safe sexual practices, STDs and pregnancy, which is extremely dangerous for child brides. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s and pregnancy is consistently among the leading causes of death for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide.
On a psychological level, child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression. Girls who marry before 18 are much more likely to experience domestic violence than those who marry later. Just because rape within a child marriage is sanctioned by the community does not mean it is not rape. A child cannot consent. In addition, many child brides report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands or in-laws.
Girls who marry as children are on average poorer and less educated than those who wait until they are of age. Child marriage does nothing to improve this. Nearly all child brides leave education immediately on getting married and assume a heavy burden of unpaid domestic work which denies them opportunities to lift themselves or their families out of poverty.
In many regions, child marriage is an historic practice, steeped in tradition, which stands as a significant barrier to change. Despite, or perhaps because of this, it is imperative that we work to change cultural attitudes and put an end to child marriage. The right to ‘free and full’ consent to a marriage is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it has been shown that this practice directly hinders the achievement of 6 of the 8 Millennium Development Goals.
On a practical level, local incentives seem to be the best way to reduce child marriage. For example, child marriage is illegal in India, but it is one of the countries where the practice is most common. Improvements in the provision of education, schools that girls can realistically attend until they turn 18, have had the greatest positive effect. Establishing practical alternatives and tackling the root causes of child marriage are the obvious steps to take.
Ending child marriage will require a massive cultural shift on a global level. Communities will need to recognise the potential and value of each and every girl, allowing her the freedom and respect to develop at her own pace, making her own choices. It will necessitate a revision of attitudes towards the dignity of women and children, traditional gender roles and cultural concepts of marriage. Girls deserve a childhood. We need to stop denying them this fundamental human right.