21% of girls globally will be married before they turn 18
To many in the western world, marriage is regarded as a happy union between two people in love, yet this positive sentiment is not universal. To many young girls, marriage brings fears of lost freedom, education, violence and forced child bearing.
The terms child, forced, and arranged marriages are often used interchangeably. Breaking down these terms is useful in understanding the issue and clarifying what constitutes slavery.
Child Marriage: A union in which one or both parties are under the age of 18.
This in itself, whilst discouraged, does not amount to a situation of slavery if both parties have given their full informed consent, principally in couples 16+. Unfortunately this is not the case in majority of unions involving children. A child is entrapped in a situation of slavery when they do not have the agency to give informed consent, are unable to leave the partnership should they wish to do so, experience dynamics in which they are subordinate or experience abuse in any form (emotional, physical or sexual).
Forced marriage: A marriage that takes place without one or both parties giving their consent. Forced marriage by definition violates human rights and unfortunately the previously mentioned features of slavery are often evident as well. A person may be forced into marriage at any age by means of coercion, deceit, threats to themselves or loved ones, or experience violence.
Arranged Marriages: A union in which an individual’s guardians, in some circumstances professional match makers, select a partner for them to marry.
Arranged marriages are the most complex to discuss with stories of developing love intertwined with stories of extensive abuse and despair. There is a myriad of layers to this practice, but a core source is culture. Brayden has previously spoken about culture, the challenges in changing it and who has the authority to say who should (which you can check out here). Cultural norms explain how this practice is widely accepted in certain societies; propelled by a tradition to abide by your family’s desires as disobeying can be damaging, even dangerous in certain circumstances.
If individuals are in a position where they freely choose to have their marriage arranged, if they are able to withdraw during the match making process and feel able to get a divorced should they desire, this is not problematic.
UNICEF data shows 21% of girls globally will be married before they turn 18, with 38% of this occurring in Sub Saharan Africa. In Niger this occurs for a startling 76% of the female population. UNICEF also predict if the rates of decline do not accelerate significantly, by 2030 an additional 50 million girls will be wives before their 18th birthday.
As with all issues of slavery we address there are underlying matters of poverty, history, and opportunity. Considering a guardian’s motives and addressing these root causes is the most viable path to curbing the alarming rates.
In many communities where child marriage is a common practice, gender inequality and patriarchal ideas of controlling woman are dominant. Girls are not as valued as boys and with this in mind, parents what to relieve themselves of their daughters’ burden by making her a husband’s responsibility. Traditional beliefs of a women’s maternal role also contribute to this, as once a young girl menstruates becoming a wife and child bearer is perceived as her duty to now fulfil.
Alternatively, having one less person in the household may be the only means for a family to escape acute poverty, despite knowing this may be detrimental to their daughter. However in areas where there are high risks of physical or sexual assault, being married may provide her a greater level of safety. Marrying off a daughter may also be seen as an option to repay debts, settle disputes, or form social, economic and political alliances.
These factors help us better understand the practice in areas of severe economic hardship, but this isn’t the only place it occurs. America, a primarily wealthy nation, has issues with oppressive marriages too. A disturbing twenty states have no minimum age to marry if parental consent is given, allowing children to be exploited. Certain regions have significant stigma surrounding pregnancy outside wedlock, seeing the parties involved lose all agency if the family/church demands they marry. Likewise divorce is not seen as a valid option which can trap individuals in situations of abuse.
These contrasting situations require different solutions. Sub Saharan African nations needs better education within the communities at a grass roots level, as law changes in these settings will have minimum impact. Many organisations are working hard to collaborate with community leaders and spread awareness of the negative impacts to girls physical, emotional and mental health if made to quit school and follow this marital path. However America, where law respect and enforcement is greater, US States improving policies will have a strong impact. In 2018, Delaware became the first state to outlaw child marriage completely and further states considered bills – hopefully 2019 sees more legal changes.