From Iraq to Nigeria, the effects of child marriage are devastating

Article Date

02 May 2014

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

A proposed new law in Iraq could have devastating consequences for the country’s women and girls, gutting progress made towards women’s equality.

How can one law make such a massive impact? Easily: it would apply to the country’s majority Shia population, making marital rape legal. It would give husbands who divorce their wives automatic custody of any of the couple’s children over the age of two. And last but not least, it would legalize child marriage for girls as young as nine years old.

A law that allows for girls to be married as young as nine years old is, first and foremost, an egregious violation of a girl’s rights, as established by international law. Furthermore, when children are forced to marry, the consequences are devastating for themselves, their families, their communities and their countries.

And Iraq is not the only place girls are at risk from child marriage and other forms of violence. Far from it. Reports that more than 200 girls kidnapped from a school in Nigeria were recently sold and wed to Boko Haram militants has tragically brought the severity of the problem to the world’s attention. And stories about child brides from India to Ethiopia regularly appear on social media and in headlines around the world, even while millions of other girls’ stories will never make the news at all.

When girls marry early, they’re robbed of their childhood, their education and the opportunity to make their own choices for their lives. They are forced to have sex before they are ready, which puts them at increased risk for early and high-risk pregnancies, leading to death or lifelong health complications for themselves and their children. They are at higher risk for multiple forms of violence. Their ability to contribute economically, socially and politically to their families and their societies is stifled, feeding an intergenerational cycle of poverty and gender inequality.

The good news is that the world has begun to recognize that collective action must be taken to end child marriage. Diverse governments around the world have adopted minimum age of marriage laws, which are a fundamental first step toward an enabling legal framework. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations adopted a resolution, which included more than 100 countries who called for an end to early and forced marriages. And the African Union will soon launch a campaign against child marriage.

A legal framework that protects the rights of children and women is critical for establishing a basis of equality between women and men and ending gender-based violence, including child marriage.

At the same time, ICRW’s research has also shown that laws and policies alone are not sufficient for ending child marriage. For many years, we have been developing and evaluating programs that empower girls, mobilize their families and community members, and facilitate more access to educational and economic opportunities.

For example, we have worked with CARE to provide married girls with access to sexual and reproductive health information and economic empowerment in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. We are also currently evaluating a government program in northern India that is giving money to girls if they are unmarried when they reach the age of 18. And we are conducting cutting-edge research around the world – from Bangladesh to Senegal – to better understand how to tackle the root causes of child marriage.

These are only a few examples of the hundreds of initiatives that are taking place around the world to support girls, their parents, and their community members to end child marriage.

While progress is being made, the recent headlines in Iraq and Nigeria remain a chilling reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve a world where women and girls are safe, healthy, educated and empowered.