many children throughout the world are the victims of forced and arranged marriages. Suffice it to say that such marriages are harmful to the health of the children involved.
In certain countries, it is customary for families to choose who the husband or wife of their offspring will be. Consequently, it often happens that a young man or a young woman will be married without his or her consent. This is what is known as a forced marriage.
Forced marriages constitute a human rights violation because such a practice violates the basic principle of what marriage is (a joining together in wedlock of two freely consenting individuals) and impedes a person’s physical liberty and as well as his or her ability to decide for him- or herself what his future will be.
Forced marriages involving an individual under the age of 18 are most commonly called child marriages.
Young girls are most often the ones affected by this practice. While they are still very young, sometimes at birth, their family chooses the husband to whom they will be married as soon as they reach puberty and can bear children.
In economically disadvantaged regions, poor families see child marriage as a way to improve their lot in life. A dowry, for example, will help support the family and shelter their child from financial problems. In developing countries, such marriages play a role in the preservation of culture and strengthen the ties between important families.
Child marriages constitute a violation of children’s rights—in particular the rights of girls. Deprived of their childhood, they become wives and mothers, yet have neither the maturity nor the discernment necessary to accept and understand what marriage involves and entails.
Such marriages have a harmful effect on the health of these young girls, both physically and psychologically. Often they are raped on their wedding night and become victims of sexual violence at the hands of their husband.
Furthermore, they are completely unprepared, both physically and mentally, to undergo pregnancy and childbirth. Many of them give birth prematurely to infants whose chances of survival will be lower than normal. Indeed, the experience of giving birth may prove fatal not simply for the infant but for the mother as well.
Every year, millions of children are married against their will or without really understanding the consequences of what they are consenting to. The ambiguity existing between forced marriage and arranged marriage prevents a precise determination from being made as to the actual number of children—above all young girls—who are forcibly married. Nevertheless, whether it be arranged or by force, child marriage constitutes a violation of children’s fundamental rights.
In 2005, in developing countries, more than 65 million women (from 20 to 24 years of age) were already on record as having been married before they turned 18. More than 30 million of these women lived in Southeast Asia. In Nepal, 7% of young girls were married before their tenth birthday.
On the other hand, every year, 14 million girls between 14 and 19 years of age marry and become mothers as a result of pressure from their families, despite the health risks; 15-year-old girls are five times more likely than 25-year-old women to die while giving birth. And even if they do not die, they may suffer from serious health complications.
Child Marriage as a Custom
Customs are practices which are inherited from the past and which are accepted and respected by the members of a community.
Child marriage, forced marriage or arranged marriage is viewed as a custom which has a harmful effect on children’s health. In effect, children who are forced to marry against their will are subjected to trauma which endangers their physical and mental development.
Child marriage runs contrary to the CRC’s definition of children’s rights and should be viewed as a violation of human rights more generally.