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2021 progress in banning child marriages worldwide

International Women and Girls Series

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At ECPAT International, we firmly believe that every child deserves a childhood free from violence or any form of sexual exploitation and abuse. Now only found in a few countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, child early and forced marriage (otherwise known as CEFM) is a harmful practice that disproportionately affects young women and girls and perpetuates the gender-based cycle of poverty and inequality. 

700 million women alive today were married before the age of 18. Child early and forced marriage (CEFM) disproportionately affects young girls and women from poorer communities, rural areas, or conflict-affected countries. Very often child marriage is a form of, or a pathway, to sexual exploitation. To stop it, we need to not only work with governments to criminalise it, but more importantly, work with parents, to help them understand these implications.

Thomas Muller
ECPAT International – Deputy Director of Network Development and External Relations

What are the root causes of child marriages? 

Child marriagea formal or informal union in which at least one of the parties is under 18 years of ageis a harmful form of child abuse that is rooted in gender norms, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and economic hurdles.  International law considers any form of child marriage as a form of forced marriage because children under 18 are unable to provide full, free, and informed consent. Despite the fact that child marriage is a fundamental violation of child rights, the practice remains widespread across the world [1]. 

Many young women and girls are forced into marriages because of tradition, customary laws, patriarchal stereotypes, and rigid social norms. Male members of the family usually play the part of warden to safeguard the “family honour” or benefit from child early forced marriage, as they are compensated [2].  

Girls who are forced into marriage are more likely to become victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse. 

There are many cases of perpetrators who sexually exploit young girls through forced marriages in exchange for money, gifts, or property as a pathway to sexual exploitation. After the marriage contract is signed, girls are forced into prostitution, child trafficking, and online sexual exploitation [3]. Read the story of Halima who got married at 17 years old here.

Criminals looking to exploit young women and girls do not only take advantage of factors such as poverty, but also insecurity and instability. During war and conflict, some families, viewing child marriage as the only way to cope with economic hardship, are forced to give up their daughters in the hopes that they might be safer. A 2014 UNICEF study in Jordan, revealed that registered child marriages among Syrian refugees increased from 12% in 2011 to 31.7% in the first quarter of 2014. Read more about child marriages in the Middle East and North Africa here. 

Globally, there is still a lot to be done to ensure the safety of young women and girls. In 2021, some countries took a first step and introduced legislation banning child marriages. 

  • In January, Dominican Republic approved a bill that bans child marriage of any kind, thus safeguarding the fundamental rights of children, particularly girls. The President established a special cabinet that focuses on gender equality and dismantling gender-based violence in the country. This is a great achievement when placed in context—The Dominican Republic has the highest rates of child marriage in Latin America and the Caribbean [4].  Prior to this law being enacted, children could be forced into marriage as long as there was parental consent and permission from a judge.  

 

  • Last year, there were also significant changes across the United States in the laws pertaining to child marriage. In June, Rhode Island became the fifth state in the US to unanimously approve and pass a legislation banning child marriage. The law forbids marriages for people under the age of 18, even with parental consent. Before this, children below 18 could marry with the permission of their parents or guardians, or with a court hearing, if aged below 16 [4]. In July, New York also approved a law banning child marriage without exceptions, following in the footsteps of Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.  
  •  In December, child marriage became illegal in the Philippines. The law clarifies the definition of who is a child (anyone below the age of 18), and also refers to all the possible interpretations such as in the civil unions and church proceedings, in recognized traditional, cultural or customary manners, informal unions, and cohabitation outside of wedlock between an adult and a child, or between children. Importantly still, the punishment for this crime in the Philippines now carries at least 10 years imprisonment and a fine for everyone who tries to organise, facilitate, or arrange a child marriage.  

 

  • In the UK, a bill that would ban child marriage in England and Wales is currently being debated in parliament. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, if passed, would increase the minimum age for civil partnerships and marriage from 16 to 18 in England and Wales. It would make it an offence to carry out “any conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage”, with a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. 
  • In Lebanon, the Supreme Islamic Sharia Council approved a religious ban on child marriage in 2021. This marks a milestone achievement considering that it comes from a religious institution; it passes a strong message to every person belonging to the Sunnis community. Under Lebanon’s constitution, personal-status laws are enacted by each individual combining common law with religious doctrine. In fact, the government does not express openly against the practice that is often governed by religious courts. Each of the major Lebanese religious groups has a different legal age for marriage: for Catholics it is 14, for Shiites it is 15, and recently Sunnis raised it to 18. Unfortunately, despite the high pressure, the parliament hasn’t yet approved a law banning child marriages below 18 in the country.  

Is banning child marriages enough? 

According to UNICEF, banning child marriage has proven to be a vital step for the protection of women and girls [5]. By banning child marriages, women and girls are less likely to be denied opportunities such as access to education and earning an income, which are vital for a country’s economic growth. According to a report conducted by UNICEF and the World Bank in 2017, a country’s overall economy benefits when women and girls are protected [6]. The report found that the Dominican Republic’s poverty rate decreased by 10% after introducing laws against child marriages [7].  

Banning child marriage is one of the most important steps toward officially recognising child marriage as a crime; it sends a clear message condemning this harmful practice. But is banning child marriages enough? 

Certainly, laws guarantee that girls are legally protected from coercion, violence, school drop-outs, and sexual exploitation. However, as some women’s rights activists have stated, a legal ban is not enough to ensure that the crime will no longer be committed. We need a more concerted effort in order to achieve a radical shift in different communities.  

To enforce change and ensure a real impact, governments, next to legally banning child marriages, must also invest in policies and programmes that challenge harmful social and cultural norms within rural communities. Civil society organisations and grassroots associations that work for children’s rights and child protection should be given more credit and finances to be at the forefront of ending child marriages – and all their harmful consequences [8]!  

Gender norms that force young women and girls into exploitative and possibly dangerous unions must be challenged! We must act now and ask the governments worldwide to continue implementing laws that ban any and all forms of child marriage now and invest in the work of local organisations for the protection of children!  

Meet ECPAT member organisations that are working for legislation and cultural changes here. 

Join us in the fight against any form of child sexual abuse and exploitation here. 

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