‘He raped me every single night. I had to pretend I was happy’. Rubie Marie was only fifteen years of age when her family made the decision to fly her out to Bangladesh and marry a man unknown to her. In an interview with the BBC, Marie recounts how her family dressed her up like a ‘doll’ and drenched her in ‘Indian gold’. She recalls how she was treated like a ‘slave’, baffled, bewildered, betrayed. Not breaking down at all whilst recounting the details of her life married to this man, Marie then goes on to talk about her daughter, conceived from this marriage, and it is the first time we see her break down in the interview. Her daughter, born with a disease passed on from the man who was raping Marie every night, a disease that now means it is not possible for Marie’s daughter to ever ‘find happiness and enjoy life’, has destroyed Rubie Marie. It is because of her daughter that Marie will never forgive her family for flying her out to Bangladesh at only fifteen years of age and marrying her to a man unknown to her.
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. 23 girls every minute. 1 every 2 seconds. More than 650 million women, and over 150 million men already suffer the consequences of child marriage and if current trends on child marriage continue, 150 million more girls will be married in childhood by 2030.
So, what exactly is child marriage and why does it happen? According to Girls not Brides, child marriage is ‘any formal marriage or informal union where one or both of the parties are under 18 years of age’. Child marriage violates girls’ rights to health, education and opportunity. It exposes girls to violence throughout their lives, and traps them in a cycle of poverty.
South Asia has the highest rates of child marriage in the world and according to UNICEF India has the largest number of child brides in the world– 15,509,000. Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia and the second highest number of absolute child brides – 4,451,000. But what drives child marriage in South Asia?
1. Poverty: Child marriage is more common among poorer households, with many families marrying off their daughters to reduce their perceived economic burden.
2. Betrothal: Some girls are promised in marriage before they are born in order to ‘secure’ their future. ‘Send-off’ ceremonies thus take place when they reach puberty and they are sent to their husband’s home to commence married life.
3. Level of education: Many families consider girls to someone else’s wealth. This means that a girl’s productive capacities benefit her marital family, and educating daughters is therefore seen as less of a priority than educating sons, who are responsible for taking care of biological parents in old age.
4. Pre-marital sex: Marriage is used to preserve the purity of girls as soon as they reach puberty and to ensure that they are not ‘corrupted’ by men of lower castes. Virginity is seen as sacred and there is a high premium placed on it and thus it is considered more holy to marry off younger girls.
5. Gender Inequality: In many communities where child marriage is practised, girls are seen as a burden on the family. Marrying your daughter at a young age can be viewed as a way to ease economic hardship by transferring this ‘burden’ to her husband’s family. Child marriage is also driven by patriarchal values and the desire to control female sexuality, for instance, how a girl should behave, how she should dress, who she should be allowed to see, to marry, etc.
What is the government doing?
For more than 140 years, the Indian government and civil society have sought to curb the practice of early and child marriage through law. In 2006, the government renewed its efforts: India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, which increased the penalties for conducting a child marriage ceremony, made a child marriage voidable by a married party up to two years after reaching the age of maturity, and provided the opportunity for courts to intervene in these cases. Furthermore, the act issues that the minimum legal age of marriage in India is 18 years with no exceptions.
These legal frameworks reflect the government’s and communities’ concerns about the issue—but they are rarely implemented and have been insufficient in addressing an issue as complex and rooted in community practice as early and child marriage. Despite this, there is however some reason for optimism as the rates of child marriage are slowly declining but progress is not happening fast enough and India has committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030.
How can we help to end Child Marriage?
Here are only some ways to help end the crime of child marriage:
1. Mobilise families and communities: Many families and communities see child marriage as a deeply rooted practice within their culture as well as how they interpret their religion. It is often driven by inequitable gender norms such as an emphasis on protecting a girls’ (or her family’s) honour by controlling her sexuality. For change to happen, the values and norms which support the practice of child marriage need to shift. Working with families and the wider community to raise awareness of the harmful consequences of child marriage can change attitudes and reduce the acceptance among those who make the decision to marry girls as children. We need to work on how we can change the views of those who are leading their own girls down this path of child marriage!
2. Empowering girls: Working directly with girls to support them in being agents of change, help envisage what alternative roles could look like in their community and helping them to forge their own pathway in life are major things that could help solve the issue of child marriage. Giving these girls more opportunities to build skills, educate them so they are aware of their rights and can exercise them as well as develop their own support networks is an import part of the efforts to end child marriage.
3. Economic security: Girls and women also need to have economic security if they are to live safe, healthy and empowered lives. Economic empowerment schemes such as microfinance or village savings and loan schemes can help girls to support themselves and their families without having to be married. Furthermore, ensuring girls have the opportunity to become financially literate and have the ability to open and easily access a bank account (without male supervision) can help them save in a secure way and become financially independent.
4. Working with men and boys: Working with men and boys is a critical part of the efforts to end child marriage. In many communities it is the men who hold the power and make the decisions. Interventions targeting fathers, brothers, husbands and future husbands are important in helping men and boys reflect on the status quo and see the benefits of a community which values and supports girls and women to fulfil their potential.
5. Accessible and safe schooling: Increasing access to accessible, high quality and safe schooling is a critical strategy in ending child marriage. Education builds knowledge, opens new opportunities and can help to shift norms around the value of girls in the community. Keeping girls in school is an effective way to prevent girls marrying but it is not enough. Girls need the support to make the transition into secondary school. For married girls, it is important that schools encourage and support them to continue their education in either an informal or formal setting such as being part of a safe space programme, undertaking part-time, remote or vocational learning.
It will be no easy task to end child marriage in South Asia and according to Ela Bhatt, a member of The Elders and founder of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), India’s largest women’s trade union, ‘It’s not just a matter of programme or project, ‘it’s a mission, it’s a human mission’.