Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, spoke today at the United Nations about the health consequences of early and forced marriages. His presentation followed an announcement that Canada will contribute $203.55 million towards improving maternal and child health in developing countries.
One in three girls will be affected by early and forced marriage in the developing world.
Forced marriage is a marriage in which one or both parties have explicitly stated their desire not to be married to their chosen partner. Early marriage, also known as child marriage, is a marriage in which one or both parties are under the age of 18. In practice, however, girls are often much younger than this and it is not uncommon for children to be married off at as young as five or six years old.
Forced and early marriages are more common than we think. Worldwide, an estimated 51 million girls below age 18 are married. A further 10 million underage girls marry every year – that’s one every three seconds.
Gender inequality at the root of the problem
There are many parts of the world where women are treated as property which can be bought and sold. Even where laws have been put in place to stop the practice, today, girls continue to be forced into marriage as a means to settle an argument, as a source of income, or as a way to maintain the family’s ‘honour’.
In Pakistani jirgas (local tribal assemblies), young girls are sometimes used as payment, a custom known as swara in Pashtun, when settling a dispute among neighbours. In 2004, the Pakistani parliament passed an amendment to Pakistan’s penal code making swara a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Since then, around 60 decisions made by jirgas involving swara girls have been prevented by local courts, though in most tribal areas this cultural practice prevails.
In other cases, selling a daughter into marriage is seen as economic necessity. In certain parts of the world, low-income families may resort to selling their daughters to alleviate their own poverty, while simultaneously reducing the extra “burden” an additional child can be on the family income. Similarly, child brides may be used as bartering tools for families looking to create ties with other socially, economically or politically relevant families. It is not uncommon for young girls to be offered to families who own more land and livestock or who have political power.
Often, in order to maintain izzat (honour), many families may marry off girls before they bring shame to the family name through their actions. In many South Asian communities, dating before marriage, dating someone from another culture or caste, pre-marital sexual relations, and behaving in a “westernized manner” are all examples of actions that would bring shame onto a family.
A girl who is married as a child is one whose potential will not be fulfilled
Girls who are forced to marry before puberty are deprived of a normal childhood and adolescence. Moreover, women and girls who enter non-consensual marital relations are at an increased risk of being physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Child brides are often subjected to mental and emotional abuse at the hands of their much older husbands. These circumstances can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide.
Often times, forced marriage spells the end of a girl’s education. Wives are expected to prioritize home-keeping over attending school. Girls who discontinue their educations significantly limit their opportunities to move themselves and their children out of poverty.
Ending early and forced marriage will require a commitment to and investment in women’s rights organizations
The reason that forced and early marriage has been difficult to combat, despite gaining attention in the international sphere, is that these harmful practices are deeply embedded in certain traditions and cultures. In order for the practice of early and forced marriages to finally end, whole communities must become involved in the solution. It requires a challenge to traditionally held beliefs and a commitment to altering attitudes and behaviours that deeply harm women and girls.
This kind of ground breaking work is what women’s organizations do best. Allocating resources to end early and forced marriage is the first step, but to truly make this practice a thing of the past, we need to ensure that these funds reach the women who are in the best position to make this change happen – local women’s rights organizations working in the community to create lasting social change.