Throughout the world, but mainly in African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, 10 million girls per year are forced into marriage. Many of these girls are not yet eight-years-old. The consequences include poor levels of education, poverty, health risks and sexual abuse.
Fariba was only eight-years-old when she was forced to marry a 48-year-old man in Afghanistan. In return for handing her over to her new husband, as if she were goods to be sold, her father received 600,000 afghanis, approximately £7,500.
Fariba’s case is not uncommon. One out of every five under-age girls in developing countries find themselves in the same situation. In countries such as Bangladesh, Guinea, Chad, Mali, Mozambique and Central African Republic, the figure for early and forced marriages is over 60%.
Despite the fact that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that marriage should be entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses, this is often not the case in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa where 14.3 million girls are forced into marriage.
The United Nations views the forced marriage of under-age girls as a violation of basic human rights, leading these children to become isolated, poorly educated, victims of sexual abuse and at risk of suffering from health problems caused by experiencing pregnancy at such a young age.
For this reason, the best way to guarantee the protection of these girls’ rights is by enforcing a minimum legal age for marriage of 18-years-old, as these kinds of non-consensual marriages are considered as abusive to women and a form of sexual violence.
In many Middle Eastern, African and Asian regions, women often occupy a lower status in society compared to men as a result of their countries’ cultural traditions, religious beliefs and sexist attitudes, which stifle a woman’s ability to play an equal role.
Furthermore, many of these families live in poverty and, in the face of such low income compared to the degree of their outgoings, parents may see their daughters as an economic burden difficult to bear. For this reason, it is the girls own family (most often the father and brothers) who agree to her marriage to an older man.
In many countries, a lack of legislation on this matter is another factor that enables these kinds of marriages. In many cases, however, legislation does exist but the families are unaware and do not realise that they are breaking the law as they are simply carrying out a traditional custom.
This problem also occurs in countries where this practice is not customary. In the UK there are an estimated 250 marriages per year of this kind organised within immigrant communities. For this reason, a monitoring programme was created which has brought an end to 300 of these cases over the last two years.
In addition to the psychological trauma that this situation can cause, once the girls are handed over to their husbands they are often forced to leave school and abandon their education, which leads to them becoming completely dependant on their husband, devoted only to family and the home and with no opportunities for education or personal growth.
Furthermore, when a girl is given to her husband all the consequences of this action must be accepted. This means that, regardless of age and whether or not she has begun menstruation, the girl becomes a woman in every sense of the word, leading to physical and sexual abuse, including rape.
This is not the only effect on their health. When girls begin sexual relations at such an early age their reproductive health is more likely to suffer from enduring childbirth, because their bodies are not fully prepared for it.
More extreme cases also exist. According to official figures, it is estimated that in India 500,000 girls under 15-years-old are second time mothers.
The British NGO, Plan International, claims that each year, worldwide, around 14 million girls aged between 15 and 19 give birth. With research showing that pregnancy during early adolescence increases the mother’s risk of dying during childbirth compared to adult mothers.
This problem does not only affect the girls involved but also their children. In developing countries the death of a mother can have a disastrous effect on her babies as they are 10 times more likely to die before reaching two-years-old, showing how this problem has a wider effect.
However, experts and human rights organisations believe that there is a clear solution to the problem: education. Although it is difficult to put this solution into practice.
Keeping girls in school and giving them the same education as men in a safe and violence-free environment is one of the main priorities for enabling equality between the sexes in these countries and avoiding sexual health problems and, of course, putting and end to early and forced marriages.
This is the way forward for these countries to enable them to develop fairer and more equal societies where Fariba would never have been forced to marry at only eight-years-old.
(Translated by Rebecca Hayhurst – E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org)