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child marriage is violence against girls

Madeleine Brecher attended a NGO CSW/NY Members’ Briefing in November 2012 on Early Forced Marriage as a Form of Violence Against Girls. This topic is highly relevant to the priority theme on the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls at the UN Commission on the Status of Women deliberations scheduled for March 2013.

Tehani recalls the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was 6 and he was 25. “Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him,” (Tehani, age 8, Yemen)

Dr. Yvonne Rafferty, Professor of Psychology, Pace University, reminded us that the girl child has no decision-making control. In many countries, this control falls to her dad or her brothers who force their young daughters and sisters into very early marriage. Over 60 million girls worldwide become child brides. In Nepal, 7% of girls are married by 10 years old and 40% by age 15. In Yemen, they advertise tourist marriages where girls are married for sex and then the husband leaves the country.

Some of the reasons for these forced early marriages are extreme poverty, the prevailing norms, armed conflict and of course to raise the income of the girl’s family by trading a daughter for a sum of money. Yet the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and CEDAW state that women and girls must provide free and full consent before being joined in marriage. Some of the major consequences of early forced marriage are that the girls become vulnerable psychologically, sexually, and economically. They become victims of domestic violence, do not attend school and therefore are unlikely to keep their own children in school, they have virtually no reproductive rights which leads to many pregnancy related deaths, they have babies before they are physically able and their own children are more likely to die. In addition, these child brides end up with a high percentage of chronic disabilities, obstetric fistula, and the risk of HIV Aids.

In order to prevent this violence against the girl child, these youngsters must be empowered by building schools to further their education and enhance their social assets. These schools must provide quality education. Presently, 70% of their health care decisions are made by the men in their family. Education too ultimately will enhance their economic situation.

Francesca Moneti, Senior Child Protection Specialist with UNICEF, is responsible for policy and program development on social norms and gender equality. She explained that UNICEF is doing innovative work to address the norms in child marriage as they relate to health nutrition, gender education, human rights, HIV Aids, and high mortality. It is proven that a few years make a huge difference so if they increase the age norm, many of these negative issues would improve. The trick is really to increase the value of a good education in these countries for girls.

In villages, many mothers might want to educate their daughters rather than marry them off but the social pressure is enormous. A catalyst must come forward within the community, i.e. the elders, teachers, religious leaders to make change happen. Presently, the social norms are too strong against mothers taking control. For example, when discussing the practice of female genital mutilation, to change the norm, someone in the audience suggested finding alternative jobs for the cutters. This however is a misconception. The practice doesn’t go away but rather outside cutters come forward increasing the risk of infection, chronic disability and death.

Young people themselves must become the actors for change. Girls MUST be empowered with the support of the entire community. Finally, the correct term is child marriage, NOT early marriage since the definition of early is different in each community.

Madeleine Brecher, ICJW Representative to the UN, NY; Communication Secretary, NGO CSW/NY