Content warning: sexual assault, suicide, physical violence
On May 10, Sudanese courts sentenced a 19-year-old girl to death for defending herself and stabbing her rapist, whom she had been forced to marry at age 16. Although the sentence was overturned over a month later, Noura’s case has prompted international outcry and has further highlighted the need to address child marriage, which about 12 million girls experience each year.
When discussing child marriage, it is imperative to recognize its connection to intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and other forms of abuse and exploitation. According to a UNICEF report, girls who marry in their childhood are more likely to experience intimate partner violence. In fact, girls who get married under the age of 15 are 50% more likely to suffer physical or sexual violence from a partner. Girls Not Brides further reports that ending child marriage would reduce rates of intimate partner violence by more than 10% in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Uganda.
Additionally, child brides are more likely to describe their first sexual experience as forced – as was the case for Noura. In fact, one study in northern Ethiopia found that 81% of girls who were married at ages 10-19 “described their first sexual experience as against their will.” Likewise, in India, child brides were three times more likely to be raped than those who married later. Other studies have reported that many women who were married young continue to be raped throughout their marriages.
As noted by Global Citizen, child marriage often forces children to be separated from their family and friends and “transferred to (their spouses) like a piece of property.” This can lead to feelings of isolation, depression, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors – all of which are associated with child marriage. Furthermore, child brides are often deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety, have a higher risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, and are more likely to live in poverty. All of these conditions uphold a cycle of violence against the children, which continues into their adulthoods and oftentimes into the next generation. Child marriage also “ensures that (girls) remain dependent on others all their lives, strips them of their agency, and hands control over their lives to someone else” – therefore systematically disempowering them.
On the contrary, girls who remain with their families and continue their education are able to become financially independent and “engage more fully with society.” In fact, just one extra year of primary education can boost a girl’s future earnings by 15%. Thus, by robbing girls of education and economic opportunities, child marriage forces girls into a cycle of poverty – the very poverty that oftentimes is the reason they were forced into their marriages in the first place.
Here in the United States, more than 248,000 children had been married, mostly to adult men, between the years of 2000 and 2010. In Virginia specifically, almost 4,500 children were married from 2004 to 2013. Of these children, 90% were girls, and 90% were married to adults. Virginia records additionally showed brides and grooms as young as 12 years old. Although the minimum age of marriage in most US states is 18, 48 out of 50 states have exceptions that allow children under 18 to get married. Furthermore, in half of those states, there is no minimum age at all below which children cannot get married – despite the fact that the age of consent, across the nation, ranges from 16 to 18 years old.
In 2011 alone, in New York, state data showed that a 14-year-old was wed to a 26-year-old, a 15-year-old to a 28-year-old, another 15-year-old to a 25-year-old, and a yet another 15-year-old to someone aged 35 to 39. Such age differences would typically result in third-degree rape charges, which occurs when a person over the age of 21 has sex with a child under the age of 17, a felony punishable with up to four years in prison. However, a current loophole exempts New York’s statutory rape law from applying to those who engage in sex with juveniles they are married to. As one author wrote in the Houston Chronicle, “marriage provides a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for perpetrators, while doing nothing to protect the girls.”
Although some may argue that there is not much difference between an 18-year-old’s level of maturity versus a 17-year-old’s, Fraidy Reiss, the founder of the nonprofit Unchained At Last, notes an important distinction. “It’s about legal capacity. In most states, you’re not legally an adult until age 18, meaning you can’t take the legal steps you might need to protect yourself if you are married before then, including getting into a domestic violence shelter, retaining a lawyer, and getting a divorce,” Reiss told Global Citizen. “It puts the lock into wedlock.”
It was not until May 2018 that Delaware became the first US state to ban all child marriage, without exceptions. While several other states are in the process of following suit, there is still considerable – and urgent – work to be done. Girls Not Brides has reported that if child marriage is not reduced, the number of women around the world married as children will reach 1.2 billion by 2050 – “with devastating consequences for the whole world.”
Ending child marriage is a necessary component of ending sexual violence and intimate partner violence. There are many ways to join the movement to end child marriage, such as supporting girls’ education – a powerful tool to empower girls and allow them the opportunity to grow into confident and independent women. It is also important to recognize that education alone will not end child marriage, as the issue is multifaceted and caused by various factors including gender inequality and poverty. Although the various, overlapping aspects of child marriage can make it harder to eradicate, they also allow for countless opportunities to get involved. Lawmakers can work to close loopholes in laws and policies that leave children vulnerable; teachers and community leaders can learn to recognize signs of child marriage, as well as form trustful relations with children they mentor so that children may feel comfortable seeking help from them if a harmful situation arises; and all concerned individuals can use their voices to call on global leaders and politicians to protect children.
“If we work together to tackle child marriage, we can create a world where girls and women are empowered, in charge of their own destinies, and able to live their lives free of violence,” said Mabel van Oranje, the Princess of Orange-Nassau and co-founder of Girls Not Brides. “This is a world that makes all of us better off.”
Featured image source: https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/delaware-child-marriage-ban-us-first/
Maryum Elnasseh is a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.