16 Days of Activism: the link between child Marriage and violence

Article Date

09 December 2016

Article Author

Jessica Wallach

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Child brides, or girls married before the age of 18, face a host of challenges through their lives, including an increased risk of experiencing violence and abuse. This is because of the social, economic and physical factors that prevent them from being able to leave harmful situations or control what happens to them within their households. Child brides also tend to have lower educational attainment than their unmarried peers, and are often isolated from the social networks that might otherwise protect them from violence.

There are many types of violence, but the available evidence shows that child marriage increases the risk of physical violence, intimate partner violence and self-harm for married adolescents. The World Health Organization defines violence as:

The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, stunted development or deprivation.

By this definition child marriage itself is a form of violence, in that it increases the likelihood of stunted development, psychological harm and injury for girls.

(c) Photo credit: Stephanie Sinclair, National Geographic. This is Nujood Ali, who was ten when she fled her abusive, much older husband and took a taxi to the courthouse in Sanaa, Yemen. The girl's courageous act—and the landmark legal battle that ensued—turned her into an international heroine for women's rights.
(c) Photo credit: Stephanie Sinclair, National Geographic.

A key factor in the link between child marriage and stunted development, psychological harm and injury is poverty. Around the world, poverty is understood to be one of the main reasons why girls marry early. According to UNFPA’s Marrying Too Young, in a survey of 78 developing countries from 2000-2011, 54 percent of girls in the poorest 20 percent of households were child brides, compared to only 16 percent of girls in the richest 20 percent of households. Poverty is a driver of child marriage and its link to violence for a number of reasons.

The fact that child brides are more likely to be poor means that, as married adolescents, they are financially dependent on their spouses and in-laws and thus cannot escape households where they are abused. This phenomenon is especially acute in cases of humanitarian crisis or extreme economic hardship. Families often marry off their girls as a last resort, either to have one fewer mouth to feed, receive a bride price or pay a smaller dowry, “protect” the girl from violence in refugee camps, settle debts, or in the cases of Liberia, Uganda and Sudan, in exchange for protection from warlords during conflict (UNFPA Marrying Too Young). In these cases girls are treated as commodities and are left unprotected from violence.

Child brides also face particular risk of intimate partner violence because of their vulnerability and the power differential between girls and their husbands. Even though the marriage itself might formally be consensual, sexual relations are frequently not and girls are often expected to become pregnant soon after marriage, regardless of age or consent.

Self-harm is another form of violence that has recently come to light as a threat to adolescent girls. Due to advances in medical care, a decrease in maternal mortality in the last decade has meant that suicide is now the leading cause of death for girls ages 15-19 globally. The mental health of child brides is severely undermined by their isolation from family and friends as they are typically pulled out of school and away from their natal households after marriage. Married adolescents also face abuse and exploitation, frequently serving as domestic servants from their spouses and in-laws, which can further negatively impact their mental health.

Although there has not been extensive research into the link between child marriage and violence, the current available evidence shows that:

  • A study conducted by ICRW in two states in India found that girls who were married before 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later. (ICRW Too Young To Wed)

For far too many girls around the world, child marriage and violence are linked. During the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-based Violence, we must work to understand and unpack some of the main reasons girls experience violence, including the power dynamics they’re often subject to within a relationship they were forced to enter into before they were ready, to someone that they did not choose.

ICRW is a leader in the fight to eradicate child marriage.  Learn more about the ICRW’s research and advocacy on child marriage.