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CRINMAIL 899 - Special edition on child marriage

19 July 2007 - CRINMAIL 899 - Special edition on child marriage



- INDIA: Child wife suicide [news]

- ZIMBABWE: Daughters Fetch High Prices As Brides [news]

- USA: Plan to stem global child marriage scourge [news]

- THE LAW: Instruments and Mechanisms




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A girl came to our area after she got married to her husband. When she refused to have sex with him, he beat her up. Then my parents and some other people intervened. After that, she ran away in the middle of the night to her parents and said to them that she wants to go to school. But, since they refused to send her to school, they married her again. Then she hanged herself … She didn't want that [marriage], but we don't have a choice.—Amhara girl (Ethiopia), age 15, married at age 4

What is child marriage?

Child marriage involves the marriage of anyone below the age of 18. It is the marriage of a child to an adult or another child, and may be legally condoned by national laws.

These marriages are often given legal sanction because of legislative loopholes that in fact camouflage the sexual exploitation of children. And while a child cannot be expected to appreciate all the implications of marriage and give full and informed consent to it, their wishes are generally overlooked in the arrangement of such a marriage.

Are both boys and girls involved?

Child marriages are arranged in various ways and involve both boys and girls. It is more usual for girls to be married to boys and men who are older than them while boys are more commonly married to girls of a similar age.

Such marriages may be arranged between two very young children as a means of maintaining or ensuring social, economic or political ties between families.

In other cases, girls may be married to much older men who are more able to pay the dowries expected or demanded by a family. As such, girls are often the vulnerable party in child marriages. 

Many children may know their marriage partner and have been raised with him or her. Others may be married to strangers.

Does marriage have to be 'forced' to violate children's rights?

Forced marriage is a marriage that is performed under duress and without the full and informed consent or free will of both parties.

Being under duress includes feeling both physical and emotional pressure. Some victims of forced marriage are tricked into going to another country by their families. Victims fall prey to forced marriage through deception, abduction, coercion, fear, and inducements.

It is sometimes difficult to define what 'forced' means, and whether a child 'consented'. It may be easy to claim a person under the age of 18 said they agreed to marriage.

However, if a person is under the age of eighteen, many believe they cannot have given their full and informed consent if their wishes were not taken into consideration throughout the marriage process. Clearly, the younger the child, the less able they are to give free and informed consent.

Why is it a problem?

Child marriage is a violation of human rights. It forces children to assume responsibilities and handle situations for which they are often physically and psychologically unprepared.

In places where child marriage is practiced, girls rarely have any say in when and whom they marry. Once married, these young girls have little power and limited autonomy. Girls are frequently much younger than their spouses, and the younger a girl's age at marriage, the greater the age difference between her and her husband.

In its overrarching recommendations, the UN study on Violence Against Children states the prohibition of violence "refers to legal reforms including implementation of laws to stop all forms of violence against children, in all settings, including all corporal punishment, harmful traditional practices, such as early and forced marriages, female genital mutilation and so-called honour crimes, sexual violence, and torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as required by international treaties".

Early marriage can have serious harmful consequences for children, including:

  • Denial of girls’ education. Once married, girls tend not to go to school, and so they lose out on the benefits of education: better health, lower fertility, and increased economic productivity. They also lose out on any form of sexuality education, which is rarely taught before secondary school.
  • Health problems. These include premature pregnancies that cause higher rates of maternal and infant mortality. Most girls enter marriage with little or no information about their reproductive health, including contraception, safe motherhood, and sexually transmitted diseases. Because they cannot abstain from sex or insist on condom use, child brides are often exposed to such serious health risks as premature pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and, increasingly, HIV and AIDS.

    Child brides typically become sexually active as soon as they are married, and they face enormous pressure to bear children as soon as possible. Because their bodies are not fully developed, they are at greater risk of complications in pregnancy and childbirth. These complications can result in death - in many developing countries, pregnancy is the leading cause of death for adolescent girls - or ongoing health problems, such as obstetric fistula. Fistula is a debilitating condition that causes chronic incontinence and discomfort, and often results in extreme social isolation
  • Abuse - including physical, emotional and sexual. This is common in child marriages. In addition, children who refuse to marry or who choose a marriage partner against the wishes of their parents are often punished or even killed by their families in so-called ‘honour killings’.
  • Separation from families and friends
  • Lack of freedom to interact with peers and participate in community activities
  • Involvement in bonded labour such as domestic slavery

Where does it happen?

The practice of girls marrying at a young age is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. However, in the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of Asia, marriage at, or shortly after, puberty is common among some groups.

There are also parts of West and Eastern Africa and South Asia where marriages much earlier than puberty are not unusual. The marriage of girls between the ages of 16 and 18 is common in parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe.

It is hard to know the number of early marriages as so many are unregistered and unofficial.

Why does it happen?

As mentioned earlier, such marriages may be arranged between two children as a means of maintaining or ensuring social, economic or political ties between families.

Parents may consent to child marriages out of economic necessity. Marriage may be seen as a way to provide male guardianship for their daughters, protect them from sexual assault, avoid pregnancy outside marriage, extend their childbearing years or ensure obedience to the husband’s household.

What about the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Different societies have different perceptions of childhood, but most governments have committed through the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to ensure the overall protection of children and young people aged under 18.

In particular, governments have committed to safeguarding children from all forms of abuse and exploitation, as well as upholding their rights to health and protection from harmful traditional practices, which include child marriages.

Any rationalisation of child marriage as the practice of tradition overlooks the fact that such marriages are often arranged within social milieu where the rights of children to protection as embodied in the CRC are absent.

As such, these marriages may cater to a demand for children as sexual partners in ways that are not identified by society as abuse. Overall, the argument for tradition or common law practices lends legitimacy to this sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

Nevertheless, child marriages can be seen to contravene the rights of all children to protection, development and survival as defined throughout the CRC, as well as in other instruments that include articles reinforcing the right to marry based on full and informed consent.

Where the marriage of children aged under 18 is permitted by a national legal code, without regard for whether young people have the opportunity and means to give full and informed consent, that country is violating its commitment to the Convention.

Sources: Ecpat International (definition: child marriages); International Women's Health Coalition Factsheet on child marriage; UNICEF factsheet: Early marriage; UNICEF: Early Marriage: A Harmful Traditional Practice


INDIA: Child wife suicide

A man in his mid-40s has been arrested in Calcutta on charges of abetting the suicide of his second wife, a minor aged 15.

The arrest followed a complaint lodged by the victim’s family, who also alleged that she had often been tortured by her husband and in-laws for dowry.

Police said Jyoti, a school dropout, consumed poison at her in-laws’ house in Chitpur on Friday night. She was taken to RG Kar Medical College and Hospital, where she died this week.

“The girl had an affair with next-door neighbour Premlal Khatik, a daily-wager. Premlal is married and has a 19-year-old daughter,” said Gyanwant Singh, the deputy commissioner of police (headquarters).

The Khatiks and Jyoti’s family went to a wedding in the locality from where the duo fled. “Premlal and Jyoti returned home after a couple of weeks, claiming that they had married,” said an officer of Chitpur police station.

Jyoti’s parents said “poverty and concerns about the girl’s future” had forced them to accept the marriage.

“But Premlal soon pressed the girl’s parents for money. He started torturing her after her parents turned down his demand for Rs 50,000. They did not have the means to pay the money,” said an officer.

Failing to bear the torture, Jyoti had fled her in-laws’ house several times, but Premlal would woo her back on each occasion.

“The complaint says that Jyoti was beaten up for the past two weeks. They hardly gave her anything to eat and locked her in a room,” the officer said. “On Friday night, Jyoti could lay her hands on a packet of pesticide and consumed it.”

The police raided Premlal’s house after receiving the complaint and arrested him, his wife and brother. “The names of all three were mentioned in the complaint,” said deputy commissioner Singh.

The police claimed that Jyoti’s family had not earlier complained about the torture.

[Source: The Telegraph India:]

Further information



ZIMBABWE: Daughters Fetch High Prices As Brides [news]

[HARARE, 17 July 2007] - Daughters have become a high-priced commodity in Zimbabwe, where a dowry has become a means of escaping poverty in a rapidly declining economy.

"When people are mired in such hunger as we have been seeing in this country for over seven years, they will do anything to survive," Innocent Makwiramiti, a Harare-based economist, told IRIN.

Parents have taken to demanding "absurd" amounts of money and other commodities from their in-laws. "It is not surprising that many parents are looking to the bride-price as one way to make ends meet," he said.

The dowry, a cultural practice, "has ceased to be a social problem and now needs to be seen from an economic point of view, with girl children being used to generate income," Makwiramiti said. "Unless the economic meltdown is addressed, we will continue to see parents commodifying their daughters."

Most Zimbabweans are struggling to survive: unemployment is out of control, inflation has topped 4,000 per cent, and 80 per cent of the population is living below the poverty datum line.

Daughters as a pension fund

Moses Jaison, 54, from the populous suburb of Mabvuku in southeastern Harare, the capital, last year betrothed his daughter Miriam, 15, still a minor in Zimbabwean law, to a polygamous businessman thirty years older than she was.

"The pain of seeing my family go without food and other basic necessities drove me into such a decision," Jaison said. "At that age, Miriam should have been in school and, being as intelligent as she is, might have ended up as a doctor or pilot, but poverty has rendered that only a pipedream."

Miriam stopped going to school at the age of eleven, after her father was laid off when the company that had employed him for thirty years closed down. Miriam's husband paid Jaison Z$15 million [US$115] and settled the mortgage on the family home, which had almost been repossessed when they fell behind with the monthly instalments.

Jaison barely scrapes a living by selling sculptures along the road linking Harare with Mutare, a city about 280km southeast of the capital, but because tourism has plummeted as a result of Zimbabwe's poor image, sales are slow and he does not earn nearly enough to take care of his wife and five children.

However, Miriam found living with three other wives too demanding and recently sought refuge at a local non-governmental organisation that promotes the welfare of girl children.

"That has worsened my plight, because the businessman who had married her has told me that I should give him back what he paid me as a [dowry]," said Jaison.

"That money has run out, and the police have indicated that they want to arrest me for ill-treating my daughter by marrying her off before she attained the legal age for marriage, and her husband could also be taken in for making a minor his wife."

Rich men, who have often generated their wealth illegally by trading in foreign currency or fuel on the informal market, do not have a problem in meeting the demands of in-laws, but those who do not earn much find the wooing tough.

[Source: IRIN News:]

Further information




USA: Plan to stem global child marriage scourge [news]

[WASHINGTON, 17 July 2007] - Hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid goes to countries where girls as young as 12 are forced to marry, a rights abuse that is the focus of legislation to be introduced in Congress this month.

In 2006, $623 million in U.S. funds went to 16 of 20 countries with the highest child-marriage rates, including Bangladesh, Mali and Mozambique, according to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a Washington non-profit group that works with governments on development and women's issues.

The new legislation would authorise $100 million over four years to try to stop the practice, most prevalent in West Africa and South Asia.

Bills by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., also would require the State Department to include child-marriage statistics in annual human rights reports on other countries.

"Every year in poor countries, millions of girls - preteens and teens - become the wives of older men," McCollum says. "This custom is not marriage, but rather sanctioned sexual abuse and a human rights violation that destroys girls' lives."

Child marriage deprives girls of education, threatens their health and the health of their children, and thwarts efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, says Anju Malhorta, ICRW vice president.

About 51 million women worldwide now ages 20-24 were married before age 18, and 100 million more girls will become child brides over the next decade, according to figures compiled for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

One in three girls in developing countries marries before age 18. In Niger, a poor West African nation, more than three-quarters of girls are married before 18, most at age 15, USAID says.

Poverty and culture factors

Parents in poor countries often marry off young daughters to ensure that they will be cared for and because traditional cultures prefer that brides be virgins.

The ICRW says young brides are more likely to die in childbirth and contract HIV than women in their 20s and older. The group also says children born to teen mothers are more likely to die in infancy.

"They (child brides) cannot negotiate the terms of sex" with husbands, who are usually older and have had previous sexual partners, says Kathleen Selvaggio, author of an ICRW report. They "can't insist on fidelity or condom use."

Researchers have focused on keeping girls in school as a way to discourage child marriages.

Half of girls in India are married before age 18 even though underage marriages violate national law, the ICRW says.

Rahul Chhabra, spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Washington, says his government "is aware of the problem and trying to do its best," imposing jail terms and fines, even for those attending weddings of underage brides.


An official at the Niger Embassy, Amadou Sounna, says his government is "in the battle against child marriage, recognising the terrible consequences it can have, especially for the health of girls."

Sounna says Niger works against the practice through information campaigns and tries to keep girls in school. About a third of girls in Niger are enrolled in school, he notes.

Katherine Blakeslee, director of USAID's Office of Women in Development, says the Bush administration tries to deal with the issue by integrating it into other programs.

Says Rep. McCollum: "USAID and the State Department know this is a major problem and have started taking positive steps, but it's simply not enough."

[Source: USA Today:



THE LAW: Instruments and Mechanisms


  • What the Convention on the Rights of the Child says about harmful traditional practices: Article 24.3 States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.
  • What the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child says about harmful traditional practices:
    Article 21 Protection against Harmful Social and Cultural Practices

    1. States Parties to the present Charter shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate harmful social and cultural practices affecting the welfare, dignity, normal growth and development of the child and in particular:

    (a) those customs and practices prejudicial to the health or life of the child; and
    (b) those customs and practices discriminatory to the child on the grounds of sex or other status.

    2. Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and effective action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years and make registration of all marriages in an official registry compulsory.


What are 'instruments' and 'mechanisms'?
See CRIN's A to Z of child rights

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Child Rights Information Network (CRIN)



: Barid Huqouq Al- Tifl

United Kingdom: Review of the use of restraint against children in jail (19 July 2007)

USA: Forced Apart - Families Separated and Immigrants Harmed by United States Deportation Policy (18 July 2007)

Chad: Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict (July 2007)



This week's quiz focuses on child marriage

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