The issue of child marriages continues to remain a concern about the health and development rights of girls and young women.
Some of these children are forced into marriage at a very early age, and others are simply too young to make an informed decision about their marriage partner or about the implications of marriage itself. They may have given what passes for ‘consent’ in the eyes of custom or the law, but in reality, consent to their binding union has been made by others on their behalf.
The right to free and full consent to a marriage is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in many subsequent human rights instruments – consent that cannot be ‘free and full’ when at least one partner is very immature.
Based on preliminary research there are multiple pathways child marriages impact the person and society. Studies thus far have documented two pathways – increased population growth and reduced educational attainment.
There are welfare costs from population growth, earnings losses for poorly trained women and girls, and education budget savings by governments.
A World Bank study of the economic impacts of child marriage produce initial findings which indicate early marriage has profound physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional impacts, cutting off educational opportunity and chances of personal growth. In a number of cases, there are the issues of premature pregnancy and childbearing and the tremendous cost these have on the individuals and society.
Looking at the issue from a rights perspective, there are a few key concerns, including the denial of childhood and adolescence, the curtailment of personal freedom and the lack of opportunity to develop a full sense of selfhood, as well as the denial of psychosocial and emotional well-being, reproductive health and educational opportunity. Early marriage also has implications for the well-being of families, and for society as a whole.
Where girls are uneducated and illprepared for their roles as mothers and contributors to society, there are costs to be borne at every level, from the individual household to the nation as a whole.
Governments are often either unable to enforce existing laws, or rectify discrepancies between national laws on marriage age and entrenched customary and religious laws. This is because of the official tolerance of cultural, societal and customary norms that shape and govern the institution of marriage and family life.
At the end of last year, 193 governments committed to ending child marriage by 2030. Child marriage is a core economic and human development and human rights issue and its inclusion in the Global Goals for Sustainable Development will also help us to achieve many of the other global goals.
For example, parents who marry off their daughters often see child marriage as a way of securing her economic security or easing the family’s financial burden. In fact, quite the opposite happens. Child marriage perpetuates the cycle of poverty by cutting short girls’ education, pushing them into early and repeated pregnancies, and limiting their opportunities for employment.
While there is growing evidence documenting the tragic consequences of child marriage, preliminary data that is available suggest that in most cases there are harmful effects on girls’ health, education, rights and well-being. In addition, the economic impacts of this harmful practice, including the economic opportunity and financial costs, costs for health care systems, lost education and earnings, lower growth potential, and the perpetuation of poverty. The impact on the individual as well as at the national levels, are very large. There is the need to examine the practice as a human rights violation in itself.
Children and teenagers married at ages well below the legal minimum become statistically invisible as ‘children’. Thus, in the eyes of the law, an adult male who has sex with a girl aged 12 or 13 outside marriage may be regarded as a criminal, while the same act within marriage is condoned.
It is important to note that preliminary information globally indicates that most of the benefits from ending child marriage would accrue to the poor, who are almost always the most likely to have higher rates of child marriage.
Ending child marriage would help greatly to eradicate extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity.
To date, studies that look at the effects of early marriage have focused on premature sex and pregnancy and school drop-out.
Much work remains in countries such as Trinidad and Tobago to analyze the full impact, especially the financial and economic impact, on the family and society of this practice.
One thing is clear: the impact of early marriage on girls is a wideranging phenomenon: to pretend this is not so is disingenuous at best.