LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Jamila was three years old when her parents gave her to another Afghan family for marriage to their son. She was beaten regularly and treated as a slave.
At 10 she was raped by the uncle of her intended husband. Her injuries were so severe she had to be taken to hospital. The following year she was forced to marry her rapist. Every night he raped her and then sent her to sleep in the stable with the animals.
Jamila’s case is one of several highlighted in a report by international rights group Equality Now which calls for the United Nations to make the elimination of child marriage a new global development target when the Millennium Development Goals are replaced next year.
Equality Now said countries must recognise child marriage as child abuse and introduce robust laws setting a minimum age of 18 for both boys and girls.
“Child marriage legitimises human rights violations and abuses of girls under the guise of culture, honour, tradition and religion,” said the report’s editor, Equality Now’s London director, Jacqui Hunt.
“Its far reaching effects go beyond the individual, affecting the entire community, and even national and global development. Ending child marriage must be a global priority.”
Around 14 million girls are married off every year, depriving them of education and opportunities, jeopardising their health and increasing the risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.
The report comes amid concerted campaigns in Yemen and Saudi Arabia to ban child marriage. The practice is widespread in both countries, neither of which sets any minimum age for marriage.
In Iran, the report highlights concern over the rising number of girls marrying before their 15th birthday and a controversial law passed last year which allows men to marry their adopted daughters.
The Syrian crisis also appears to be fuelling child marriage. Aid workers say some refugees are marrying off daughters early because they cannot afford to care for them and want to protect them from the risk of rape.
A major danger of child marriage is that it leads girls to having babies before their bodies are developed. Pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19.
Children born to girl mothers tend to be less healthy, less educated and poorer. Daughters often grow up to become child brides themselves, perpetuating cycles of inequality, discrimination, abuse and poverty.
Hunt said improving access to secondary education was key for empowering girls and ending child marriage. Better educated girls marry later and are more likely to earn an income and contribute to their country’s economy. Their children in turn are healthier and better educated.
The report looks in detail at the laws and practices surrounding child marriage in 18 countries including Chad, Eritrea, Guatemala, India, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Thailand and Yemen.
Even where countries set minimum ages for marriage, many allow exemptions with parental consent or for customary law.
Hunt said governments must not only introduce and enforce strong laws against child marriage, but also tackle the discrimination, attitudes and abuses that underpin it.
Child marriage is often justified as a way to protect girls from premarital sex or rape and thereby safeguard a family’s honour. In some cases a family or judge may even force a girl who has been raped to marry her rapist as a way of restoring family honour.
The report says laws that exempt rapists from prosecution if they marry their victim can encourage child marriage. Morocco’s parliament is likely to vote this month on whether to repeal such a law.
Poverty also fuels child marriage. Bride prices - paid by the groom - can spur families to marry off daughters. Poor families with many mouths to feed also marry off daughters to save money.
In countries like Afghanistan, girls can be given away in marriage as a way of settling a debt or compensating a crime. In Jamila’s case she was handed over after her father killed a member of the other family. Girls married off in this way are often treated as slaves and punished for the original crime.
Equality Now says child marriage also leads to other rights violations. For example, a girl may be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) or force feeding to fatten her up ahead of marriage.
It describes the case of an 11-year-old girl in Mauritania who died after being force fed from the age of seven to make her more marriageable.
The report recommends that governments
- Set 18 as the legal minimum age of marriage
- Amend laws allowing marriages between rapists and victims
- Ban abuses linked to child marriage like FGM and force feeding
- Enforce birth and marriage registration. This helps combat child marriage by providing proof of age
- Provide mandatory schooling for longer
- Undertake a comprehensive review of laws, including customary and religious laws, to identify those that perpetuate child marriage