Evidence for what drives child marriage is growing. Despite diversity across regions and communities, many common threads lead to child marriage and its harmful consequences. Human Rights Watch research in Malawi, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Yemen has found that intersections between gender discrimination and poverty; poor access to education and health services; customary practices; religious beliefs; and weak justice mechanisms fuel the practice.
Poverty is commonly cited by girls and family members as driving decisions to marry young. For poor families, with little money even for food and basic necessities, marrying their daughter early is an economic survival strategy: it means one less child to feed or educate. Girls themselves may see marriage as a way out of poverty. Discriminatory gender norms in many places, including traditions that mean girls go to live with their husbands’ families, while boys remain with, and financially support, their parents, also contribute to perceptions that girls are economic burdens. Some families believe that giving their daughter away in marriage may give her a chance for a better life.
Legal frameworks play a powerful role in transforming norms and protecting girls’ rights. Relevant laws and regulations include those that set the minimum age for marriage at 18 for both girls and boys; requirements for birth and marriage registration; sexual violence and domestic violence laws; anti-corruption laws; and family status laws regulating marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance. At least 20 African countries allow girls to marry below the age of 18 through their minimum age laws or through exceptions for parental consent or judicial approval.
Although many African countries have established 18 as the minimum age of marriage for boys and girls, weak enforcement has meant these laws have had little impact. Police may not have adequate training on dealing with these cases, do not see it as their job to prevent child marriages, or defer to the parents’ wishes. And while birth and marriage registration helps prove the age of spouses at the time of marriage, they are rarely produced or verified. For example, only 16 percent of children in Tanzania under age 5 have been registered with civil authorities, and only about half of these children received a birth certificate.] Birth certificates are often also forged by corrupt officials who may accept bribes and knowingly facilitate child marriages.
Corruption may mean girls can find little recourse from the justice system. Also, many African countries have multiple legal systems where civil, customary, and religious laws overlap and generally contradict one another. Community or religious leaders who align child marriage with customary practices and religious beliefs may also resist laws and their enforcement.
Traditional beliefs about gender roles and sexuality and women and girls’ subordination undergird many customary practices, such as payment of dowry or bride price, which perpetuate child marriage. In a context of limited economic resources and opportunities, girls are often seen as economic assets whose marriages provide cattle, other animals, money, and gifts.
For example, dowry payment is a key driver of child marriage in South Sudan, where families see their daughters as sources of wealth. A marriage is sealed after a man and his family negotiates and pays a dowry to a woman’s family in the form of cattle, other animals, or, increasingly, money.
Religious beliefs can also be a driver of child marriage. Amongst Zimbabwe’s religious sects, particularly in the apostolic faith where religion combines with traditional culture, girls often marry much older men at a very young age.
Human Rights Watch research has shown that child marriage has dire life-long consequences, often completely halting or crippling a girl’s ability to realize a wide range of human rights.
Child marriage directly violates rights to health, education, equality and non-discrimination, consensual marriage, employment, and to live free from violence and discrimination, which are enshrined in international human rights standards and institutions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Child marriage also violates the rights of women and girls that are enshrined in regional treaties. These include the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol), which calls on governments to “enact appropriate national legislative measures to guarantee that: the minimum age of marriage for women shall be 18 years”; and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter), which calls on states to “ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of women and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions.
Article by Thelma Asantewaa