This is the first in a three part series about child marriage, based on a speech given by Chelsea Ricker. To learn more about the new International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (H.R. 2103), introduced in the House on April 27th, click here.
Life seems to be stacked against African families and African women in particular: an exploding population living mostly in poverty, and an average life expectancy steadily falling, mostly due to HIV/AIDS. Sub-Saharan Africa carries the heaviest burden of the HIV Pandemic and has the least access to sexual and reproductive health services. There are a huge range of issues affecting womens’ and girls’ health in Sub-Saharan Africa.
With that in mind, I want to look in a little more detail at just one form of gender-based violence – child marriage. Of the top 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage, 16 are in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Niger alone, over 60% of girls aged 15 to 19 are either married now or have been married. Right now there are more than 60 million girls worldwide under the age of 18 who are already married, many of whom weren’t given a choice about it. That’s 25,000 a day, some as young as 9 or 10, some even younger, married by force to older men.
I’m using 18 as the benchmark because the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines 18 as the legal age of adulthood, and so that’s how we measure a lot of these numbers. But I also told you about girls aged 15-19. At IWHC, we’re concerned with number of girls forced into marriage by the age of 14, because they are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation and face extremely serious health risks as a result of these marriages. We consider such marriages to always be forced because girls this young rarely have the legal capacity or the personal agency to disobey their elders or to give or withhold their consent. Early and forced marriage of girls aged 14 or younger is a fundamental violation of their sexual, reproductive and human rights. Beyond being a fundamental human rights violation, early and forced marriage increases girls’ vulnerability to serious health risks (such as HIV), social isolation and poverty. Child marriage is not only devastating to girls and women, it undermines communities and societies. Girls who give birth at the age of 14 or younger have a much higher risk of complication in pregnancy and childbirth. They are five times more likely to die during childbirth than girls in their 20s.
Chelsea Ricker is the Africa Program Assistant at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Read her bio here.