Every year, 10 million girls around the world are married while they are still children. With a rising global population, numbers of child brides are predicted by United Nations experts to increase to 14 million per year in the next decade. Following a hearing into child marriage, a cross-party group of UK parliamentarians are calling for governments here and abroad to take urgent action to protect girls from the consequences of being married and becoming mothers while they are still children themselves.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (the Group) is calling on the government to tackle child marriage on two fronts. In the UK, this includes a recommendation to implement statutory guidance on forced marriage, training for professionals, inclusion of consent in marriage and sexual relations in the personal, social and health education (PSHE) curriculum, compulsory registration of all religious marriages and an increase in the minimum legal age for marriage to 18. They are also encouraging the Department for International Development (DFID) to conduct research into the prevalence and practice of child marriage, to evaluate existing interventions to ensure that UK aid is spent effectively and to scale up programmes to prevent child marriage and support survivors. In particular, they would like to see British aid being spent to meet the needs for family planning, sexual, reproductive and maternal healthcare of girls and women of all ages and whatever their marital status.
Baroness Jenny Tonge, Chair of the Group and the hearing, said,
‘Every three seconds, a girl is coerced or forced into marriage, losing her childhood, her dreams and the opportunity to make her own choices about her life and relationships. This is not just bad news for the girls themselves, it also means that too many children are born into a world that is already overpopulated and half of the productive population of a developing country cannot participate fully in their societies because they are uneducated and unable to contribute to the workforce. Countries where girls are educated, marry later and have fewer children show higher economic growth and a better standard of living for all.’
Child marriages are driven by poverty, gender inequality and harmful traditional practices. In the developing world, a lack of access to education is both a symptom and a cause of child marriage. Child brides are generally expected to bear children from an early age, leading to a prolonged period of reproduction and larger numbers of children, yet adolescent girls are twice as likely as women in their twenties to die in childbirth. Some don’t even make it that far. Gauri van Gulik of Human Rights Watch told the hearing about Elham Mahdi al Assi, a thirteen-year-old girl in Yemen who died just days after her marriage to a man in his twenties in a ‘swap marriage’ exchange in which her brother also married her groom’s sister. She died from internal bleeding as a consequence of her husband raping her. Delaying marriage saves lives as well as giving girls and women equal opportunities to boys and men.
In most cases, laws and international conventions are in place to protect children from being forced into marriage. Yet, time and again governments fail to implement these protections. Evidence shows that British girls are being taken out of the country to be married against their will and here in the UK, families are getting children married off in ‘community’ or religious ceremonies or by taking advantage of the fact that the law in Britain allows the marriage of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds with parental consent.
The British government recently announced plans to criminalise forced marriage. Nearly 30% of the calls received by the UK Forced Marriage Unit helpline this year related to minors, so implementing this change in the law should also help British girls. Jasvinder Sanghera, author of the memoir Shame and chief executive of the Karma Nirvana support network for those affected by forced marriage and child marriage in the UK, said,
‘I welcome the fact that our Prime Minister has committed to making forced marriage a criminal offence – my plea is that we work to also enforce what already exists. Statutory guidelines continue not to be implemented or monitored effectively and the lack of school engagement remains concerning. There remains the need to universally agree a minimum age of marriage, it cannot be right that children as young as 8 years old here in Britain are entering a marriage arrangement. This is abuse and not part of anyone’s culture or tradition and we as a society have a duty to recognise it as such.’
Baroness Tonge’s message for parliamentarians, DFID and those working in child protection in the UK is simple: ‘Resolve to do something about our sisters worldwide whose cries are not heard.’
Source: UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health press release 26th November, 2012.
A Childhood Lost, the report of the parliamentary hearing on child marriage held by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, will be published on 27th November 2012, and available to download from the Group’s website: http://www.appgpopdevrh.org.uk/parliamentary%20hearings.html.
The UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (the Group) aims to encourage initiatives to increase access to, and improve reproductive and sexual health programmes worldwide. It has 70 members, from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, representing the UK’s main political parties. The Group provide members with a forum for discussing population, development and reproductive health. For more information please go to www.appg-popdevrh.org.uk