All over the world, adults marry with children, even though it violates the fundamental rights of the child. Marriage often involves lifelong suffering. Therefore, attitudes must change and legislation tightened - we know that it can lead to a positive change, writes Christina Heilborn at UNICEF Sweden.
About 650 million women in the world have married as children. But the proportion is steadily declining, today about every fifth girl is divorced compared to every fourth girl ten years ago. Concrete measures such as local information campaigns, investments in girls' education and stricter legislation have led to changes, although they often take time. In India, for example, the risk of a girl being forced to marry before her 18th birthday has decreased from 50 to 30 percent in ten years. Another example is Ethiopia, which once belonged to the countries with the most child marriages. In the last ten years, child marriage in Ethiopia has decreased by a third.
It is usually about an adult man who marries a minor girl against her will. The root causes of child marriage are gender discrimination, poverty, lack of education and deep-rooted traditions. Attitudes and norms about girls, women and gender roles must therefore change.
Daughters are seen as a financial burden
In many countries, daughters are seen as a financial burden, which is a strong incentive to marry off their daughter at a young age. Many parents also believe that the daughter is more protected from violence and abuse in a marriage. This is one reason why child marriage is on the rise during conflicts and humanitarian crises.
The harmful consequences for girls must be made visible, including health problems, lack of education and exposure to violence. Girls who marry before the age of 18 go to school for a shorter time on average, resulting in poverty and financial dependence. They more often experience social isolation and domestic violence. In addition, teenagers are more likely to suffer from complications as a result of pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s.
Clear laws are a prerequisite
In its work, UNICEF uses various methods to oppose child marriage; advocacy work for stricter laws, efforts to get girls to stay in school and communication to change norms and values.
A prerequisite for being able to stop child marriage is that there are clear laws that prohibit adults from marrying children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all children under the age of 18 are individuals with their own rights. Article 24 deals specifically with traditional customs such as child marriage. At the end of March, protests erupted in Morocco after a 15-year-old girl took her own life. The girl was raped and reported the abuse but was then pressured to marry the rapist. The country's criminal law makes it possible for a perpetrator to avoid punishment if he marries his victim. After five months of constant violence, the girl took her own life. The protesters now demand that the perpetrator be convicted and that all children have their rights met.
Information campaigns and training required
The UN Population Fund UNFPA and UNICEF run programs to speed up the termination of child marriage in twelve countries where the phenomenon is most widespread. The goal is to reach 2,5 million girls who are married or at risk of marriage next year. The efforts are adapted to each specific country and involve many actors such as local leaders, authorities, parents, schools, healthcare and social services. In Mozambique and Niger, UNICEF has been involved in combating child marriage through media and information campaigns to change the view of girls' values and rights. 1,2 million people in Mozambique have been reached by the educational radio drama program "Ouro Negro" and in Niger, 85 percent of the inhabitants have been reached by a musical series on girls' rights.
A lot of work is also put into improving education for girls so that more people stay in school. This can be about building better toilets, having a dialogue with parents about the importance of education, developing vocational training for girls and providing extra support to vulnerable girls who are at risk of getting married. In this way, child marriage can be reduced. However, we know that changes in norms and behavior take time, especially when these are linked to harmful and deeply rooted traditions.
The abolition of child marriage is a specific sub-goal (5.3) of the Global Development Agenda that world leaders have pledged to achieve by 2030. Achieving this requires more focus on the issue, more resources on UNICEF initiatives and a continuous dialogue with the who has the power to influence.