Tied with a Knot: Child Marriage

By Ruth Akinradewo

The UN considers child marriage as any marriage where at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age. It is deemed a form of forced marriage, given that one or both parties have not yet reached adulthood and therefore considered to be unable to give full and informed consent to the wedding.

UNICEF estimates that some 650 million girls and women around the world were married as children. Approximately 12 million girls below the age of 18 are married each year.

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the legal age of consent to marriage is 18. With parental consent, those aged 16 or 17 can marry (in Scotland, parental consent is not required), which has been condemned by campaigners who recognise it frequently becomes a legal loophole for parents wishing to shackle their unwilling children into marriage.

In 2018, British MP Pauline Latham initially introduced a bill seeking to outlaw the marriages of those between the ages of 16 and 18; however, it was dismissed because the number of child marriages was in the “hundreds” and, therefore, not considered an important enough issue. Pauline Latham describes it as “crazy” that Britain allows child marriage while simultaneously spending around £39 million to bolster efforts to eradicate child marriage in other nations.

Child marriage typically comes about by the parents of the child instigating early marriage, and in impoverished families, finding an older man to marry their daughter is often seen as offloading the “burden” of raising a girl child onto someone else. At times child marriage is seen as a way of regulating the girl’s sexuality, as now her sexual relations will take place within the confines of marriage rather than outside of wedlock. Other recognised motives include: ensuring land, property, and wealth remain within the family, ensuring the girl marries within her race, religion or caste, and assisting claims for residence and citizenship.

Once married off, the girl becomes the plaything of her older husband – very often more than twice her age. She is typically subjected to repeated rapes and becomes his domestic slave. Frequently, these “brides” are below the age of fifteen, and some are as young as five. Their husbands do not care that their bodies are not yet ready for sexual activity, talk less of childbirth; and quickly these girls (contraception far from being an option), find themselves carrying children when they too are still children. Around 70,000 girls under 15 die each year because their bodies are not yet ready to carry a baby: a mortality rate 25 times higher than the average. As well as being at risk of death through childbirth, victims of child marriage often contract HIV from their abusers.

In addition to being exposed to grave medical dangers, child brides also find themselves being restricted in the sphere of education. Girls married underage rarely return to school, which further heightens the imbalance of power between them and their husbands.

The country with the highest rate of child marriage in the world is Niger, where 76% of girls are married off under-age. However, this injustice also occurs in Western nations. In 48 of the 50 states in America, child marriage remains legal under certain circumstances, such as when the girl is pregnant or has already given birth. In some states, there is no minimum age of consent for marriage.

An episode on the talk show Red Table Talk sheds light on this problem, highlighting the reality that although a minor is not legally viewed as capable of requesting a divorce, she is paradoxically allowed to marry with no obstacles: “a perfect trap.”

33% of forced marriages in the UK in 2018 related to individuals under eighteen. Often, the victims were bundled into a plane to find themselves married to someone they had never met, during a
“summer holiday.”

The following striking example highlights just how desperate the matter is. One victim, fearing she would be married by force when she travelled to Pakistan, was advised by a quick-thinking call-handler of charity Karma Nirvana, to place a spoon in her underwear to set off the metal detectors at the airport. She was taken to a room, away from her family, where she was able to explain to officials the situation.

Although some cases are prevented, the overall picture is dismal: the UN estimates that by 2030, over 150 million girls around the world will be forced to marry before they are eighteen.

We must do something: time is running out.