Some of the most heart-breaking stories that I have heard in my life are from child brides who describe the emotional and physical violence they have faced from their husbands and, in some cases, their in-laws. 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 tell me 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.
As we embark on the ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’, I want to shine some light on the mostly hidden violence of child marriage.
Child marriage is a form of violence because it violates a girl’s basic rights.
Mabel van Oranje
Child marriage is a form of violence because it violates a girl’s basic rights. Because getting married usually means an end to formal education. Because child marriage can be a precursor to a death sentence: child brides often become pregnant at a young age, long before they are ready physically or emotionally, and this can have devastating consequences. In fact, complications during pregnancy and child birth is the second most common cause of death for 15-19 year olds globally.
Ironically, one of the drivers of child marriage is the belief that a girl will be ‘safer’ if she is married, and that marriage will protect her against physical and sexual assault. The very opposite is true. The 15 million girls married every year around the world are at particular risk of physical, psychological and sexual violence.
Child brides are vulnerable to physical violence from their partners, or their partners’ families. Research shows that they are more likely to be abused, threatened or beaten by their husbands than girls who marry later. Often, child brides are married off to men who are older than they are. This age difference is important as the greater the age gap, the more likely girls are to experience violence.
As well as suffering physical violence, child brides often have a distorted sense of their own worth. They are more likely to believe that a man is justified in beating his wife than women who marry later. In fact, globally, nearly half of girls aged 15-19 think that a husband or a partner is justified in hitting or beating his wife or partner in certain circumstances. In Sub Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, this figure is even above 50%.
In a study in northern Ethiopia, 81% of girls married aged 10-19 described their first sexual experience as against their will.
The power dynamics within marriage can also lead to sexual violence. Many child brides describe their first sexual experience as forced. Again, the age gap matters. The greater the age difference between a child bride and her husband, the more likely she is to experience intimate partner violence. In a study in northern Ethiopia, 81% of girls married aged 10-19 described their first sexual experience as against their will. Other studies have also found that many women who have married young continue to experience forced sex throughout their marriage.
Lack of education means that young brides often don’t know about sex, are ignorant about their bodies and unaware about the ‘mechanics’ of reproduction, all of which are compounded by the silence surrounding these ‘taboo’ subjects. Married young, these girls are denied control over their own bodies and are unable to make informed choices about sex and when or whether to have children.
Child marriage and violence are also linked to HIV infection. In 2015, around 7,500 young women became newly infected with HIV every week. That is around 45 young women every hour. It is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that the countries with some of the highest rates of HIV infection often also have high rates of child marriage.
This bleak picture could provide much cause for despair, and it is unsurprising that many child brides suffer mental health problems such as severe depression. However, what continues to give me hope is the stories of girls who have been able to avoid getting married, as well as those of girls who were able to escape violent marriages and rebuild their lives. I also get hope from the tremendous progress I have seen in the past seven years towards ending this practice.
In particular, more than 650 civil society organisations from all over the world are working together – through the Girls Not Brides Partnership – to tackle child marriage head on. In 2014, Girls Not Brides developed a joint Theory of Change, which highlights the main strategies we all need to work towards if we want to create a world free of child marriage: empowering girls; working with parents and communities; ensuring that all the necessary health, education and other services are available; and the development and implementation of a supportive legal and policy framework.
We need to stop thinking of child marriage as a niche topic that can be ignored, and start recognizing it for what it is: a human rights abuse.
We know what needs to be done. Making it happen will require commitment and action from ALL of us, working together – individual activists, large and small civil society organisations, donors, governments, international organisations, families, religious and community leaders, youth groups, boys and men, and, of course, girls and women themselves. We are seeing change in the lives of individual girls and communities all over the world. However, this change is happening far too slowly. We need to stop thinking of child marriage as a niche topic that can be ignored, and start recognizing it for what it is: a human rights abuse that is subjecting 1 in every 3 girls in the developing world to multiple forms of violence.
If we work together to tackle child marriage, we can create a world where girls and women are empowered, in charge of their own destinies, and able to live their lives free of violence. This is a world that makes all of us better off.
Mabel van Oranje is the initiator and board chair of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.