Combatting child marriage to save girls from slavery

by Aidan McQuade, Anti-Slavery International
Thursday, 21 May 2015 14:39 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Child marriage commonly used as excuse for enslavement of girls

There are a lot of euphemisms for atrocities in the contemporary world. Genocide has become “ethnic cleansing”; the slaughter of civilians in indiscriminate aerial and artillery bombardments has become “collateral damage”; and the enslavement of children for the purposes of rape and sexual exploitation has become “child and early marriage”.

The war crimes of Boko Haram and Islamic State kidnapping girls and young women for rape and forced marriage is a stark example of how the symbols of marriage are used as the thinnest of veils of respectability for this form of enslavement. But beyond the battlefields the euphemism of “marriage” is used as a distressingly commonplace excuse for the enslavement, overwhelmingly, of girls.

According to UNICEF, 250 million women alive today were married before their 15th birthday. The highest rates of child marriage are concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, while, due to population size, the highest absolute numbers of child marriage take place in South Asia, where 46% of girls marry before the age of 18 and one in five marry before the age of 15.

The issue of child, early and forced marriage and its impact on health and education has been brought to the forefront of the international development agenda in recent years, largely due to the efforts of organisations such as Girls not Brides and UNICEF. But the issue has not been adequately considered as a human rights one, in particular as an issue of child slavery.

This context is of enormous importance. Whilst the impact on girls’ health and education is important, it fails to acknowledge that a huge amount of girls married as children face a lifetime of abuse, exploitation and forced labour, with no realistic chance of leaving this situation. It’s time to be clear: they are in slavery.

Currently, there is an enormous gap between international standards of protection and the reality experienced by those that fall victim to slavery and slavery-like practices as a result of marriage.

Clearly, not all cases of child marriage can be treated as slavery, particularly between couples aged 16 to 18 years, where they go on to have a relationship based on mutual respect. But in so many cases, especially involving younger children, it’s much more clear cut.

Let’s look at the law: child slavery is defined in the 1956 Supplementary Convention on Slavery as, “Any institution or practice whereby a child or young person under the age of 18 years, is delivered … to another person… with a view to the exploitation of the child or young person or of his labour”.

Now let’s look at what one young girl described what happened to her:

“I’m 13 years-old and I’m a fourth grade student … I like going to school. One day, my mother informed me that I should marry a cousin of mine. I cried a lot because I didn’t want to leave school but my parents threatened to beat me if I refused.”

The intent described in these short sentences is inescapable: her own parents were proposing to deliver her to another for the purpose of sexual exploitation under the guise of marriage with no concern for the either what the child herself wanted or what was in her best interests. In other words she was to be trafficked.

That this young girl ultimately escaped her proposed enslavement is the only thing that redeems this story from the banal reality of violence, abuse and stunted potential that most child brides experience.

In a newly published paper entitled “Behind Closed Doors” Anti-Slavery International argues that the UN and the international community as a whole should intensify efforts to combat situations of slavery and slavery-like practices arising from child and early marriage. In doing this we hope to help advance the struggle to end all child marriage that colleagues in Girls Not Brides and other similar organisations have been waging.

To define when child marriage becomes slavery, we propose that one or more of the three indicators are present: when the ability to refuse, leave or end a marriage is denied; when a child spouse is exploited within the marriage or denied freedom of choice on her personal matters; and when a child spouse is subject to rape and violence without recourse to law or society for protection.

The word ‘protection’ is key when we talk about addressing this issue, and the term “marriage” cannot be used as an exemption under which any form of child abuse, including rape and enslavement, are permitted.

The struggle for human rights and justice tends to encounter the most entrenched resistance when it confronts the self-interest of others. And men, who still hold most of the power in the world, tend to become deeply attached to the right to rape and abuse women when granted this by custom or law.

But just because a struggle is difficult does not mean it should not be fought.

In 1792, in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of the general situation of women: “They may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent.”

Child spouses remain “convenient slaves” and their continued abuse and enslavement degrades our whole human society. We should no longer be cowed by the vested interests across the world who wish to maintain this form of abuse in the name of tradition.

Some traditions deserve to be repudiated, and in repudiating child marriage the world will come a step closer to the one hoped for by Wollstonecraft and all who still fight for the idea of upholding basic human rights for every human being on this planet.

Aidan McQuade is the director of Anti-Slavery International, which works at local, national and international levels to eliminate all forms of slavery around the world.