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Child Marriage: Human Rights, Health, and Development

Increasing female access to education is crucial in combating child marriage
Recently, Eritrea Profile featured an article by Rigat Tesfamichael titled, “Combating FGM/C in Eritrea.” Clear, thorough, and detailed, the article presented readers with a description of FGM/C, outlined its practice within Eritrea, and described key interventions and considerable progress made in the country. In addition to helping draw vital attention to a pressing women’s and human rights issue, the article also encourages sustained commitment to eradicating the practice. Building upon Ms. Tesfamichael’s important contribution, the following article highlights another harmful, traditional practice that affects millions across the developing world – child marriage.

Child marriage, generally referring to the marriage of individuals under 18 years of age and predominantly afflicting females, is a flagrant violation of basic and fundamental human rights (Nour 2006). 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 promotes the realization of all rights by children everywhere.

Utilizing the CRC as a standard, child marriage violates a number of rights and articles, including, amongst others: 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. As well, since child brides quite often become young mothers, they are frequently forced to forego educational opportunities and basic childhood activities. Accordingly, child marriage also violates CRC Article 28, on the right to education and CRC Article 31, on the right to rest and leisure.

Furthermore, considering the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW 1979), child marriage also violates Article 16(2), which states 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). Additionally, failure to protect children from child marriage can be categorized 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).

Beyond its human rights dimensions, child marriage is a significant health and development issue. Girls who become brides leave school early, missing out on education and thus unambiguously diminishing welfare, capacity to fulfill life aspirations, and their potential to propel broad socio-economic transformation. A considerable body of research has illustrated that education and income are closely associated, with girls who complete more years of education experiencing greater income returns.

Vitally, economically strengthening females serves to stimulate and undergird economic growth and prosperity. A plethora of examples and case studies abound – from Bangladesh to Bolivia to South Korea and Kerala, amongst others – revealing that when families, governments, the business sector, communities, and societies invest in girls and women, and work to eliminate inequalities, developing countries are less likely to be plagued by destitution and poverty and they become better positioned to thrive within highly competitive global markets.

In terms of health, child marriage can lead to an array of immediate and long term physical and psychological issues. It prevents girls from bonding with others their own age and maturing, and raises the risk for cervical cancer, malaria, and obstetric fistulas. Child marriage also leads to higher rates of child and maternal mortality, and serves as a significant risk factor for numerous sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS (Nour 2006). Since child marriages are essentially non-consensual, girls may flee, subsequently becoming vulnerable to high-risk activities such as commercial sex work. Furthermore, child brides 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). Moreover, 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).

Like many other developing countries throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, child marriage in Eritrea is rooted in the country’s historical, cultural traditions. Viewed as a sacred societal institution, marriage is an integral component of society. Although specific rules and customs of marriage (e.g. dowry, familial arrangements, etc.) differed slightly amongst various ethno-linguistic groups, an underlying common feature was that girls were married at an early age.

Eritrea’s efforts to eliminate child marriage date back to the days of the country’s long independence struggle. During that period, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) – which administered large swathes of what was then Ethiopia – not only sought national sovereignty and political independence, but also the complete, radical socio-economic and cultural transformation of society. Accordingly, an important dimension of the struggle, giving special attention to egalitarian, popular democratic principles and ideals, was a particular focus on women’s and gender-related issues, including traditional marriage practices.

Notably, the EPLF introduced marriage legislation that abolished forced marriages, bride price, child marriages, kidnappings, and dowries. These measures were renewed when Eritrea eventually won independence (de facto in 1991 and de jure in 1993), through the implementation of Article 581 of the Transitional Civil Code of Eritrea (amended by Article 46 of Proclamation 1/1991). Specifically, the proclamation states that “no contract of marriage shall be valid if either of the parties is under eighteen years of age.” In addition, strong enforcement mechanisms, including stiff penalties for physical and sexual abuse of children, as well as pornography, were established.

While legislation represents a key component in combating child marriage, the general international consensus is that it is insufficient. Eliminating the practice requires a multifaceted approach, incorporating a range of measures. Critically, countries must confront traditional socio-cultural norms that are often closely intertwined with systems of patriarchy and inequality, as well as support the empowerment of women. Eritrea’s efforts in this regard have, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB), “gone a long way towards achieving gender equality.”

To begin, Eritrea ratified several relevant international human rights instruments, including: the CRC (signed 20 December, 1993; ratified 3 August 1994); the CEDAW (acceded 5 September 1995), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ratified in 1999). Furthermore, as part of its wider commitment toward gender equality and the eradication of child marriage, Eritrea worked diligently to implement the Beijing Platform for Action, formulated a National Gender Policy and Action Plan; devised national development policies, such as the Macro Policy, the Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Program, the National Saving and Loan Program, and various micro-credit programs; and forwarded several legal proclamations, such as those for Land and Labour Reform.

Regarding child marriage, these measures have helped to initiate broad societal attitudinal and behavioural changes and supported improvements in the standing and role of women and girls in society. Moreover, with child marriage being inextricably linked with poverty, the measures are highly significant since they secure legal protection for women in employment, guarantee women equal opportunities and maternal protection benefits, ensure that women are able to purchase, use, or inherit land without discrimination, and support women with the requisite resources and vital technical training that can help them fulfill their potential.

Successful child marriage interventions also require engaging communities (particularly in rural areas) and mobilizing grassroots efforts in order to increase awareness and understanding of harmful effects, influence behavioural changes, and discourage the practice. Importantly, these strategies have been central within work conducted by the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW).

Founded during the liberation struggle as the women’s wing of the EPLF, NUEW has conducted a range of community programs to educate families and communities on the dangers of child marriage (and other harmful practices). As well, NUEW has, often in collaboration with government ministries and international development partners, promoted awareness, employment, workshops, seminars, training, and life skills programs – all of which are key components of a multifaceted, holistic approach recognized as vital to combating child marriages.

Notably, education has been a fundamental aspect of Eritrea’s child marriage interventions. According to the International Center for Research on Women, “increasing female access to education is crucial in combating child marriage. Girls with eight or more years of schooling are less likely to marry early than girls with zero to three years of education. Women are more likely to control their own destinies and effect change in their communities when they have higher levels of education.”

For Eritrea, education, particularly the expansion of educational opportunities for females, has been a national priority. Since independence, national gender disparities in enrolment, completion, and literacy have improved significantly. Encouragingly, the 2013-2017 Eritrea National Education Expansion Development Report notes that “female gender parity with males will be achieved in elementary and middle education by 2015/16, and in secondary education by 2016,” and that “in technical and vocational education and training the enrolment of girls has continued to grow.”

Other gender-specific educational efforts include revising curricula and teaching materials to make them gender sensitive, and improving accessibility by increasing the number of female teachers and establishing boarding schools for girls in remote areas.
Although Eritrea’s multifaceted approach has witnessed a significant reduction in child marriage (as well as teenage child bearing), it is acknowledged that the practice “continues to be a challenge.” The process of change will require patience and a broad, sustained, and committed effort since cultural attitudes and practices are often deeply entrenched within societies. Moving forward, the country must remain committed to enforcing rights-based marital laws, continue to expand and improve educational and employment opportunities, particularly for females, and promote the transformation of in-egalitarian, harmful norms and attitudes via advocacy initiatives, community programs, public awareness, the engagement of local and religious leaders, and the active participation of all segments of society.

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