Child marriage is a violation of children’s human rights and an extreme manifestation of gender inequality. Despite being prohibited by international law, it continues to rob millions of underage girls around the world of their childhood.
Child marriage denies girls their right to make vital decisions about their bodies, well-being and future. It forces them out of education and into a life of poor prospects, with increased risk of violence, abuse and ill-health.
That’s why girls’ rights activists from around the world are lobbying their governments to outlaw the practice in order to put a stop child marriage, everywhere.
Policy change in Latin America
Youth advocate Celia, 11, got involved in the campaign against child marriage when her school began working with Plan International Honduras in 2015. She attended a workshop on girls’ empowerment and was shocked to learn that in her country, 34% of girls are married before the age of 18.*
“I also learned that it could affect our economy. Did you know that preventing girls from marrying could lead to an increase in GDP of up to 3.5%?” asks Celia in a blog she recently wrote for Plan International.
Child marriage was outlawed in the country in July after a vote in congress that raised the minimum marriage age from 16 to 18, removing all exceptions - including parental permission. Celia was in attendance, along with 13 other youth activists and Plan International Honduras.
“My dream is that this will mean more girls going to university which will help our country to progress and break the cycle of poverty... Plan International showed me that I can break that cycle,” she says.
This success in Honduras followed the closing of a legal loophole in the Dominican Republic in May that had previously allowed under 18s to marry with parental consent.
Malawian girls enlisted support of First Lady
Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with approximately 1 in 2 girls married by the age of 18.* Memory Banda’s sister was just 11 when she was forced to marry the man who got her pregnant:
“At the time, I was young and thought this was normal. But I quickly realised the devastating impact it had on her when she was further abused in marriage.”
Memory and fellow campaigner Tionge discussed the campaign with Plan UK last year:
With the support of Plan International, Memory and other young campaigners presented the First Lady of Malawi with a petition of 42,000 signatures rejecting the practice.
In February 2017, the law was amended to ban all instances of marriage for girls under 18 - even where there is parental consent.
Lilly Omondi, Country Director of Plan International Malawi described the victory as a momentous change for future generations in Malawi:
“We are so pleased that young people have played a huge part in this success. For the relevant ministers and other decision-makers to hear from young people themselves was crucial to the process. By ensuring that they have had their voices heard, these young people have helped to secure the health and happiness of millions of Malawian girls to come.”
Wedding busters in Bangladesh
Even when the law changes, it can still take time to eliminate harmful practices like child marriage from societies where customs are deeply entrenched.
In Bangladesh, the minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. However, a legal loophole known as the Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed in February 2017 which permits marriages in ‘special circumstances’ where there is consent from parents in conjunction with magistrates.
This effectively makes child marriage legal if it is considered in the ‘best interest’ of the girl involved - leaving many concerned that young girls could be forced to marry their abusers.
In Bangladesh, 52% of girls are married before 18, and both poverty and dowry are driving factors for early marriage as costs often increase the older a girl gets.* Financial pressure means that girls from poorer families are more likely to become child brides.
However, young activists are taking action. With the support of Plan International, girls’ rights campaigners have been visiting parents to explain the negative impacts child marriage has on girls, emphasising the importance of education and helping to secure ‘child marriage free zones’ in the country.
So even when legal success is achieved - young campaigners are proving vital to the global effort to stamp out child marriage in places where deeply embedded cultural beliefs might otherwise allow it to continue.
What does child marriage mean for girls?
Child marriage particularly affects many girls’ right to education, as girls who are married early are more likely to drop out of school. Conversely, education is a powerful tool for preventing child marriage.
Many girls who are married young become pregnant and have children whilst they are still children themselves. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty, as the children of these young, uneducated mothers are more likely to grow up in poverty and to also miss out on an education.
Child marriage is, therefore, a violation of girls’ fundamental human rights to health, education, and a life free from abuse. The practice robs girls of the opportunity to realise their full potential.
* Child marriage rates are from UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children, 2016.