By Jacqui Hunt, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jacqui Hunt is London director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization, which aims to end violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world. The views expressed are her own.
Khadijetou was born in Mauritania in 2002. She was force-fed from the age of 7, and in 2010, she was married to a man 10 years older than her father. At the time of her wedding, she was extremely overweight. Khadijetou became pregnant in 2011 and gave birth by cesarean in order to save the life of her child. But her own health deteriorated and twenty days later, she died aged 11 years-old.
Since there is no law in Mauritania forbidding child marriage or force-feeding, no action is being taken against anyone who may have been involved. L’Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille is calling for both laws to be enacted and implemented urgently.
Meanwhile, Lulu was subjected to female genital mutilation in Tanzania at the age of 4. At 14, having completed her primary education, she was forced into a polygamous marriage. Local organization Network Against Female Genital Mutilation met with her parents, who agreed return her dowry of eight cows and allow her to continue her education.
Tanzania’s law allows girls to be married at the age of 14 with a parent’s or guardian’s consent. There is no legal protection for girls like Lulu, who must rely on their own courage and the support of thinly-stretched non-governmental organizations when they face female genital mutilation, which is outlawed but largely unenforced, and child marriage.
It is with these issues in mind, that Equality Now has released ‘Protecting the Girl Child: Using the Law to End Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Related Human Rights Violations,’ a detailed report illustrating that child marriage does not take place within a vacuum – it is part of a continuum of abuse experienced by a girl and is often linked with female genital mutilation, sex trafficking or force-feeding before marriage, rape, domestic violence and the removal of future opportunities as a result.
The reality is that when a child bride gives birth, the vicious cycle of poverty, poor health, curtailed education, violence, instability, disregard for rule of law and legal and other discrimination often continues into the next generation, especially for any daughters she may have.
Sadly, child marriage directly affects approximately 14 million girls a year, and in the process legitimizes human rights violations and the abuse of girls under the guise of culture, honor, tradition, and religion. It is part of a sequence of discrimination that begins at a girl’s birth and continues throughout her entire life.
Of course, countries including Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which have no laws aimed at preventing child marriage, have further controls over girls and women at various stages of their lives. And although there have been indications that both countries might introduce a minimum age of marriage in the near future, this will be a challenge for both countries – particularly Saudi Arabia – where a harmful system of male guardianship prevails.
Meanwhile, judicial discretion to allow child marriage in countries such as Morocco still enables girls to be married off after being raped, a decision that effectively exonerates the rapist (although a revision of the law is possible in the near future).
Other countries featured in the report, such as Kenya, do have a minimum age of marriage law, but implementation is patchy. This also results in failure to protect girls at risk. As in Tanzania, female genital mutilation in Kenya is linked to child marriage and helps set up child brides for a lifetime of abuse.
Unfortunately, there has also been recent backsliding in several countries, including in Iran, where the number of girls under the age of 15 married off has risen and parents can now marry their adopted children, and in Egypt, where there was some discussion about the possibility of lowering the minimum age of marriage to nine years-old.
So what should be done? Ending child marriage internationally should be a global priority and included within the post-2015 development framework. A set of indicators that reflect the full range of issues surrounding child marriage should also be reviewed by donors when reviewing countries for development funding.
At the national level, a comprehensive, joined-up approach is essential, one that links the justice sector with healthcare, education, community and other leaders. Such initiatives should tackle child marriage not as a single abuse, but rather related to other manifestations of discrimination and violence against women and girls.
Without such frameworks in place recognizing child marriage as part of a harmful cycle of abuse, girls will remain vulnerable not only to being married off at a young age, but ultimately to a lifetime of abuse.