Child Marriage as Gender-Based Violence (Part 2)

This is the second 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. Read the first installment of this series here.

So why does child marriage happen?
As always, the answer isn’t that simple. Having said that, though, I want you to keep one idea in mind as we’re going through these – In most of the world, girls are not valued. In most of the world, societies and families treat girls and boys unequally. Gender-based discrimination starts in childhood and continues throughout a lifetime.

So keep that in your head, and let’s talk about some of the reasons families force their daughters to marry young:

Poverty: simply put, in many of the countries where child marriage is prevalent, families can’t afford to keep as many children as they have. If a family can’t afford food, do you think that they can afford condoms, or birth control, or medical care? Child marriage is most common in the world’s poorest countries, and even within those countries in the poorest households. And, keeping in mind the worldwide failure to value girls, if one kid has to go, do you think it’s going to be the son or the daughter? The son is not only more valued, but will also bring in more money for the family.

Poverty is also an issue when you’re dealing with social systems that still have dowrys. (Even if there’s no bride price, the family will see the girl as an economic burden that can be removed by marrying her off – after marriage, the husband becomes responsible for feeding her, buying her clothes, and if she’s allowed to continue with school, paying for her school, but in many of the areas with a lot of child marriage, husbands have to pay a price to the family of the wife in order to marry her – an incentive for parents to marry off (and essentially sell) their daughters. The act of buying a wife has huge implications for the woman’s power in the relationship once she’s married – if your husband bought you from your father, how hard do you think it is to leave him? Do you think that a dad that would sell you in the first place will protect you from an abusive husband when he knows that if you get divorced, he’ll have to give back the money?

And the bride price is higher if the girl’s a virgin. 16 of the top 20 countries for child marriage are also in the region of the world most affected by HIV. Besides the fact that traditionally, men value women’s virginity, how much more emphasis do you think you get when the whole culture is looking for a get-out-of-AIDS-free card? Plus there’s all this social pressure on parents to make sure that their girls are married before they start having sex.

Social pressures like this are really only countered by education. Which is why we can also see that the countries with the highest rates of child marriage have the lowest rates of educational opportunities, especially for girls. Education not only gives girls better job prospects – it can give them the skills to negotiate if and when they get married, and to who, as well as if and when to have a child. Education can help a girl talk to her parents, and convince them to let her make her own choices.

Chelsea Ricker is the Africa Program Assistant at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Read her bio here.

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