Forced Child Marriages

When tradition impacts the freedoms and rights of children, society needs to step up and fight on behalf of the children for those rights.

By Khumbulani Jali (Varsity Contributor)

Every year, around twelve million young girls fall victim to the archaic practice of child marriage. Widespread throughout East and Southern Africa, as well as South Asia, these forced unions are often planned and executed without the girls themselves knowing. Currently there are numerous cases of children in marriages and the conditions they face not only violate their human right to a childhood, but also compromise their health, safety and identity.

Child marriages are defined as either a formal or informal union between a child below the age of 18 and an adult, or another child. Often at times, children will be forced into marriages by their parents, usually through culturally sanctioned practices in the areas where this occurs. Poverty, destitution, and limited access to education help foster the conditions that allow for this practice to continue. The idea of marriage is often coupled with lobola/dowry, a bride price which parents receive from their new in-laws upon the marriage of the child. Effectively this can be viewed as selling off their child into marriage, in the inappropriate case of child marriage.

The young girls are often told that these marriages are necessary to secure their futures, or to maintain their social honour of the family within community. However, the marriages threaten their lives in a variety of ways. A usual consequence is having to leave school due to an inability to mix marriage life and education. Other effects include abuse from their “spouses”, and separation and isolation from friends and families. The cruellest possibility is that they are raped by the men they are forced to marry; and with the brides being minors it is statutory rape. In a situation such as this, they are confronted with the increased likelihood of complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

In response to the crisis and to protect the rights of these girls, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) launched the Global Programme to End Child Marriage in 2016. The programme aims to both curb new child marriages from occurring and to assist those children already in these forced unions. The programme is active in 12 countries across Asia and Africa, providing life skills education and economic empowerment to children, and improving access to healthcare, protection, and education services. Community engagements are also carried out, involving parents, community leaders, religious leaders, and schools. This is done in collaboration with grassroots organisers, who often include survivors of child marriages. Across the different countries, they will respond to news of planned child marriages by meeting with parents and working to convince them to cancel the unions through education on the ramifications of such unions on the future of their children. The programme also works to strengthen legislative frameworks within these countries and ensure that the rights of children are observed and protected.

The continued existence of this practice reveals the persistence of problematic gender norms that dehumanise women and girls. The children that are forced into these marriages have predetermined futures to be child bearers and housewives for the men they are married off to. They lose the ability to plot the course of their own lives and, as such, their individuality and sense of self. Existing gender stereotypes within society are in lockstep with the roles these child brides are compelled to assume. Paramount to current realities, it is important for members of society to resist these detrimental beliefs and traditions when they contribute to the continued abuse and marginalisation of the worldwide.

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