Geneva — As the world celebrates the first International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, 2012, eliminating child marriages should be a key political priority for governments to protect the rights of girls and women.
Child marriages occur when one of the parties is below 18 years of age and are a violation of human rights that disproportionately affects girls. Child marriages also violate other 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.
In 2005, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that over 100 million girls would get married over the next decade. The UNFPA will present new data on prevalence of child marriage worldwide at the United Nations on October 11, 2012.
"The first global Day of the Girl should usher in a renewed global commitment to put a stop to marriages of children below age eighteen," said Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch. "Governments should work harder to prevent child marriage and to increase awareness of the harm that they cause."
Human Rights Watch has documented human rights violations against married girls and boys in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iraq, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, South Sudan, and Yemen. The testimonies of the children interviewed illustrate the profoundly detrimental impact of child marriage on their physical and mental well-being, education, and children's ability to live free of violence. The consequences of child marriage do not end when child brides reach adulthood, but often follow them throughout their lives 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 almost inevitably disrupts girls' education and exposes them to domestic violence. Human Rights Watch spoke to Faiza Ahmed, a Bangladeshi girl who did not know how old she was, but thought that she might be 15 or 16. Faiza was forced to marry soon after she finished class five. After the marriage, she could not satisfy her husband's demands for money from her family (dowry demands), and he beat her and eventually poured acid on her face, eyes, and back.
Describing her horrific and violent marriage, Faiza said, "I was so sad and crying at the time of my marriage. I could not even see the paper [marriage contract]. All my tears were falling on it. I didn't want to leave my dad and be married. I also wanted to study ... If I had studied, I would have been like you [interviewer]. Could have been writing and reading ... Within two-and-a-half months of my marriage, my husband started to beat me ... Then one night at around 11 [pm] I was sleeping.My husband woke me up and asked me whether I wanted to go to the bathroom. I said no and went back to sleep. After sometime he woke up and said he wanted to go and wanted me to keep him company. When I went outside, he flung something on my face ... and it started burning. I started screaming and running. He caught my hand and poured more of it on my back. I had long hair. My hair used to be beautiful. Now it's all burned. He burned my eyes. I cannot see properly anymore."
Girls who marry young are more susceptible to early pregnancies and reproductive health complications associated with early pregnancy. Human Rights Watch interviewed Najla at a reproductive health clinic in Sanaa, Yemen. She did not know exactly how old she was, but she said that she was married soon after completing her second year in secondary school, which would have made her about 15 at the time of her marriage. She has two children who were born before she was 18 years old. She said:
I was pregnant with the second child when my firstborn was only five months old. For five days, I bled severely and I thought it was just my period. My mother-in-law knew what was happening to me, but she wouldn't tell me anything. They [my in-laws] wouldn't let me go to the hospital and wouldn't tell my husband what was going on with me. When I became very dizzy, they finally took me to the hospital, but at the hospital they didn't stop the bleeding and didn't give me any treatment. I had to lie on my back for six months during my [second] pregnancy and I needed 500 cc of blood. The doctor told me it's because I married early.
Poor State Response
Governments can mitigate some of the worst abuses linked to child marriage by setting and enforcing age limits for marriage, establishing and enforcing compulsory marriage registers, and prosecuting perpetrators of forced marriage. Many, however, fail to do so.
In Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch documented how young girls who tried to escape from forced marriages or who ran away from abusive spouses and their families are arrested and imprisoned. Bashira S., 14, told Human Rights Watch that she was 12 when her father forced her to marry. She became pregnant soon after the marriage. Bashira fled from her abusive husband, but instead of receiving government protection, Bashira was accused and convicted of "running away," and sentenced to two years in juvenile detention. Human Rights Watch spoke to many other girls in Afghanistan who had fled forced and abusive marriages and who were treated as criminals by the government.
Even where countries do attempt to discourage child marriage, they may fail to protect the rights of girls. In India, Human Rights Watch found that Indian policies designed to discourage child marriages in practice discriminate against girl brides. In May 2012, Human Rights Watch documented a case where a woman who was forced by her family to marry before she turned 18, was later disqualified from taking the Madhya Pradesh state civil services examination on the ground that she had married as a child.
The Janani SurakshaYojana (JSY) programme - sponsored by the Indian Central government - provides conditional cash transfers to women giving birth in health facilities and is linked to prenatal, in-hospital, and post-natal services. In many states with better health indicators, girls below 19 who are not from Scheduled Castes or Tribes, are excluded from availing of the scheme and in many the Central government limits the benefits to two live births. Similarly, The Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahayog Yojana, which is the Central government's cash assistance program to supplement pregnant and lactating women's nutrition and double up as a maternity benefit, has identical restrictions.
"Where governments fail to prevent child marriages, they should not punish girls who marry before they turn 18," said Gerntholtz. "Putting young girls in prison, or adopting a policy of discrimination against young brides and mothers, jeopardizes their life and health rather than protecting them."
In order to effectively address the problem of child marriages, Human Rights Watch recommends that states:
Enact legislation that sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, and include requirements for the verification of the full and meaningful consent of both spouses.
Take the necessary legislative and other measures to ensure that anyone who intentionally forces an adult or a child to enter into a marriage is appropriately penalized, and 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.
Provide training to law enforcement officials on gender discrimination and violence against women, including investigations into child marriages.
Ensure that government or nongovernment efforts at discouraging child marriages do not directly or indirectly punish victims of child marriages by excluding them from health, education, employment or other services that protect, fulfill, and promote their human rights.
Recognize marital rape as a criminal offense.
Increase and improve 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.
Ensure 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.
Raise awareness among health workers and the public on the importance of registering births, including home deliveries.
Provide continuing formal education and vocational training opportunities for married girls and women.
"Child marriage is almost always also forced marriage. It disrupts girls' education and exposes them to domestic violence and preventable health crises," said Gerntholtz. "By working to tackle and end the marriage of children, the UN and global governments will help protect the rights of women and girls worldwide."