by My-Linh Kunst, AWC Berlin member
There is a little known form of Gender Based Violence (GBV) that affects 700 million women and girls globally.
Every March for the last three years, I have attended the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women as part of the FAWCO delegation*. It is an opportunity for civil society to work with UN member states on issues affecting women and girls worldwide. This year, I decided to attend sessions on topics about which I know little – which brought me to a session on Child Marriage organized by Girls Not Bride, an NGO working to end child marriage.
One of the speakers, a former child bride, taught me that to call it “marriage” is condoning the practice. It should be referred to as “FORCED marriage” because it is a crime and a violation of human rights.
The numbers are staggering: 700,000,000 women around the world TODAY were married as children (younger than 18), 15 million girls worldwide are forced into marriage every year.
Mabel van Oranje, founder of Girls Not Brides, said “For almost seven years now, I have been working to end child marriage. Yet I am still horrified every time when I hear a girl [say] that she fears for the night and the forced sexual relations that come with the darkness. Or when she says that her husband sees her as worthless and treats her with contempt. Many of these child brides feel like objects and servants: they are just there to fetch water, cook and clean, and produce children. These are the realities of child marriage.”
Child marriage is a form of violence because it violates a girl’s basic rights and is often connected to psychological, sexual and physical violence. Getting married usually means an end to formal education. Getting married can also be lethal: child brides often become pregnant at a young age, long before they are ready either physically or emotionally, and this can have devastating consequences such as a fistula or death. In fact, complications during pregnancy and childbirth is the second most common cause of death for 15-19 year olds globally. Child marriage and violence are also linked to HIV infection. In 2015, around 7,500 young women became newly infected with HIV every week (about 45 young women/hour). It can be no coincidence that the countries with some of the highest rates of HIV infection often also have high rates of child marriage. (1)
Child marriage affects communities around the world. It cuts across national boundaries, race, ethnicity, and religion. It occurs in Western and non-Western countries. It affects people of all economic and educational backgrounds. There are NO cultural or religious reasons for forced marriages; the motivations behind forced marriage are complex and varied and often not singular. A common justification is custom or tradition which cedes control to an authority figure (parent or community leader) over when, and whom an underaged girl should marry. A young girl requires a smaller dowry, therefore parents might marry off their daughter early to save money. Sometimes a marriage is seen as a necessity to prevent behaviors that might bring shame or dishonor to the family, such as becoming “too westernized” which might include engaging in sexual activity, or going against other family expectations. There are immigration and economic reasons, as well. There is also the perception that a girl is “safer” if she has a husband.(2)
Surprisingly, in the United States, over half of the states have no age “floor” below which a child cannot be married, so long as there is judicial consent. The report also exposes the lax statutory exceptions based on parental consent (which can hide parental coercion) or pregnancy (which can be evidence of rape) that can actually facilitate forced marriages and often leave older minors especially unprotected. Shockingly, 718 children between the ages of 15 and 17 married in Texas from 2009 to 2013, and 4,500 children under age 18 (90% girls) married in Virginia from 2004 to 2013, including more than 200 children age 15 or younger, according to statistics from these states.(3)
More than 650 civil society organizations from all over the world are working together – through the Girls Not Brides Partnership – to tackle child marriage head on. The best course of preventive action is to educate and mobilize the communities to act against it.
It’s time to stop thinking of child marriage as a niche topic that can be ignored, and recognize it for what it is: a human rights abuse which subjects 1 in every 3 girls in the developing world to multiple forms of violence.
DAY 10 – CALL TO ACTION:
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Learn more, go to http://www.girlsnotbrides.org/
Read UNICEF’s Child Marriage Report: https://www.unicef.org/media/files/Child_Marriage_Report_7_17_LR..pdf
- Follow a bill advancing in New Jersey which would eliminate all exceptions and reserve marriage – a serious legal contract – for those age 18, the legal age of majority. http://www.unchainedatlast.org/child-marriage-in-new-jersey/
Note: AWC Berlin is a founding member of FAWCO – Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas (www.fawco.org). A network of volunteer organizations with 12000 members worldwide, FAWCO is a UN accredited NGO with ECOSOC status.
The AWC Berlin participates in the 16-Day-Campaign against Gender-Based-Violence. Each day, we highlight an aspect of GBV to raise awareness and call on our membership to take one small action to fight against violence against women.