Child Marriage: Health and Rights – A Quick Note

***This is the first of a two-part analysis of child marriage. In this post, I outline several human rights and health implications of child marriage. In a future post, I will discuss measures and steps taken by Eritrea to combat the practice.***

The issue of child marriage drew attention at the recent International Conference on Family Planning. Specifically, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chair of the African Union (AU), noted that “we must do away with child marriage,” since in too many African countries “girls who end up as brides at a tender age are coerced into having children while they are children themselves.”

However, child marriage is an important issue beyond just the family planning agenda. For example, child marriage may be intertwined with HIV/AIDS. Since child marriages are often non-consensual, girls may flee and subsequently fall into high risk activities such as sex work. Further, child brides may experience high rates of unprotected sex, have significantly older (thus more sexually experienced) spouses, and are largely unable to negotiate safer sex practices (Population Council 2005). As well, since young girls are physiologically immature, sex can result in trauma that increases the likelihood of HIV transmission (Laga, Schwartlander, Pisani, Sow, and Carael 2001: 932).

In addition to its potential HIV/AIDS ramifications, child marriage represents a violation of basic human rights. The human rights implications of child marriage most obviously begin with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC 1989). Ratified by every country in the world, bar the USA, South Sudan, and Somalia, the CRC seeks the realization of all rights of children everywhere.

Using the CRC as a standard, the practice of child marriage violates:

  • Article 3, outlining how the best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them;
  • Article 12, calling for the respect of the views of children; and
  • Article 19, obligating states to take measures to ensure protection against sexual abuse.

Also, since child brides often become young mothers, they are frequently forced to forego educational opportunities and basic childhood activities. Thus, additional violations are:

  • CRC Article 31, the right to rest and leisure; and
  • CRC Article 28, the right to education.

Incorporating the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW 1979), child marriage also violates Article 16 (2), which suggests that “[t]he betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect…” and that necessary action should be taken to specify a minimum marriage age (CEDAW 1979). Last, failure to protect children from child marriage can be seen as a violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR 1966) Article 10 (3), which outlines how “[s]pecial measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons…” (ICESCR 1966).

While many developing countries have passed legislation against child marriage, the practice continues. Most immediately, countries should remain committed to enforcing or strengthening laws. Yet, in addition, they should  promote advocacy programs, community networking, public health education, and the buy-in of local or religious leaders to overcome systems of inequality and patriarchy.

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