Breaking the Pattern: Combating Child Marriage

The damaging practice of child marriage pushes girls into a life of exploitation and abuse while denying them the right to escape. Addressing the systemic causes that underpin child marriage is necessary for its prevention.

“I remember the day when my grandfather, my aunt, and my uncle came to our house and sat down to talk with my father. I found out that my father had agreed I was to marry my cousin.”

“From that point, the world collapsed around me.”

These are the words of Madinah, an Afghan woman who was just 13 when she was forced to marry her 16-year-old cousin. 

Madinah’s story is all too common. Around the world, more than 12 million girls marry before the age of 18. That equates to one in every five girls either married (or in a union). According to the OHCHR, more than 650 million women alive today are married under the age of 18. Forced into a life they have no control over, young girls are facing abuses ranging from physical violence to physiological pressures.

For Madinah, her new living situation was difficult as she struggled to accept her new identity with her husband’s family. “In my new role as a daughter-in-law, they now looked at me as a woman, but I was still only a small girl. My mother-in-law treated me very badly and had adult expectations of me.”

Many young girls have big dreams about what they’d like to do when they grow up, but when they’re married off and forced to become wives and mothers, it interrupts their future by restricting their opportunities for success. For children ‘groomed’ for marriage, school girls are pulled around 15 (or younger) and married off, and their life choices are cut short. 

Child Marriage Is a Form of Modern Slavery

Despite condemnation, child marriage is a practice that continues at an alarming rate around the world. The UN has declared child marriage and forced marriage a form of modern slavery and a human rights violation. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms’. 

“Women and girls who are forced to marry find themselves in servile marriages for the rest of their lives,” cautions United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Gulnara Shahinian. In a ‘servile marriage’, a young woman may be given in exchange for money or other forms of payment. She has no control over her life and can be sold to someone else or inherited by other family members if her husband dies.

Who Does It Affect?

Forced marriage often occurs when members from a particular social standing, religion, or caste look to other suitable people in these groups to form marriages. Those most at risk are vulnerable and marginalized members of society. Most commonly, women and girls.

In a forced marriage, survivors may face the following:

  • Domestic abuse
  • Imprisonment
  • Domestic slave-labor
  • Lack of protection from law enforcement
  • Distanced from family
  • Isolation

Why Does Child Marriage Happen?

For some deeply patriarchal cultures, child marriage may be normalized. Communities are conditioned to believe that this is just part of their religion or tradition. Often families and the girls don’t question it. Their mothers may even enforce it, sometimes believing it is for their daughter’s protection. But many times the opposite happens, as girls can be forced to endure abuse at the hands of their new husband and his family.

In a forced marriage arrangement, refusal is not a viable option, especially when family honor is at stake. Saying no can lead to girls being outcasts from the family unit, as Jasvinder Sanghera discovered when she refused to marry a much older man.

Despite pleading to stay at home with her family and attend school, Jasvinder’s family imprisoned her until she agreed to marry. She managed to escape but was forced to sleep on the streets. Her family said they would disown her unless she agreed to the marriage. Jasvinder never came home and was ostracized from her family for over 42 years. But in secret, she reconciled with her sister, herself a survivor of forced marriage. Sadly, her sister took her own life after facing honor-based violence (HBV) throughout her marriage.

For Jasvinder, choosing to leave her family was hard, but that decision has changed the lives of her daughters, and the generations to come. In dedication to her sister, Jasvinder founded Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports women and men affected by honor-based abuse. 

Rates Are Falling, but Not Fast Enough

Recently, work addressing the root causes of child marriage has been stepped up at all levels of society. In particular, work to end harmful practices like genital mutilation, human trafficking, and child labor.

Thanks to these concentrated efforts, including government intervention, increased public awareness, and education, more than 25 child marriages have been prevented

But it’s not enough to stop the upward trend of child marriage. The current global climate of ongoing conflicts, climate change, and post-COVID-19 means that child marriage is an escalating problem, one that requires accelerated, highly focused efforts. At this rate, the UNICEF report estimates that over 120 million girls will be married before they turn 18 by 2030.

In Kyrgyzstan alone, a study reported that one in five young women and girls are kidnapped for marriage. Bride kidnapping is a practice where the groom’s family forcibly takes a young woman or girl from her home, and takes her back to his home where she is pressured to agree to marriage. Although illegal, bride kidnapping also occurs in countries like Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Central Asia.

Steps to Actions

Tackling modern slavery requires a multi-pronged approach. The Freedom Fund, a global fund to end modern slavery, outlines four key strategies for empowering women and addressing the underlying societal issues that cause modern slavery.

Raising Awareness and Changing Societal Norms

Initiatives and awareness-raising content such as tools and activities can educate the public, and offer support and protection for survivors. Raising awareness in the public sphere can make the practice of forced marriage less likely for fear of legal action, which can also prompt more people to let their brides go free.

Get More Women Into Leadership Roles

Women make up 70% of those living in slavery, but few are in leadership roles when it comes to making decisions about legislation and laws around forced marriage. Their lived experience of modern slavery is a valuable resource that can drive real change. 

That’s why community-focused organizations, such as Center For Girls, and government initiatives that support growth and provide leadership skills are vital. When the position of women is elevated, it has a flow-on effect on their community, which in turn can challenge societal norms and empower other women and girls. 

Removing the Isolation

Many women find themselves separated from their friends and family which compounds their lack of agency. Embracing the power of groups builds resilience, and utilizes the strength of others to lift them out of their situation. The creation of safe spaces allows women and girls to share their stories, be heard, and find a sense of security in their community so that they might be able to seek change in their circumstances. 

These can take many forms such as women’s groups, workshops, organizations, self-help groups, and online groups. The groups that work best are the ones that are relevant to the survivor’s situation and demographic and provide helpful tools, financial support, and resources.

Advocating for Systemic Change

Anti-slavery action by governments and stakeholders is the key force in eliminating modern forms of slavery. They need to pass laws and regulations on the related issues of gender equality, child labor, human trafficking, and safe migration. This means punishing perpetrators, improving the education of girls, and elevating the economic position of women. 

To push governments to act, grassroots organizations and communities are a powerful influence in addressing the extent of the issues that underpin modern slavery.

Breaking the Pattern of Child Marriage

To eradicate slavery in all its forms, the root causes such as poverty, social exclusion and all forms of discrimination must be addressed. The pattern is hard to break as child marriage can continue as a mental state among survivors, and inheritors of those who practiced it long after it has been declared abolished. But how women live now will affect the lives of future generations of girls to come. We need to promote and protect the rights of all, especially the most vulnerable in our society. 

Kristen Rive-Thomson


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