40.3 million people are enslaved globally, 15.4 million of which are forced into marriage. Each year, 12 million children under 18-years-old are married annually, and nearly one million of those children are under 15-years-old.
It’s unfortunately not uncommon for a girl to be given away to a man potentially twice or three times her age. For these girls, there are many expectations, the expectation to resolve her family's poverty, to gain approval from religious leaders, to avoid birthing a child out of wedlock after being assaulted; to stop wars, and create alliances. A child is meant to fix all this through marriage, and often without a choice.
The issue of child marriage is global. While many may recognize its prevalence in South Asia, countries such as Niger, Central African Republic, and Chad have the most child marriages globally with over 60-70% of girls being married before the age of 18 and approximately 30% married before the age of 15. However, child marriage is not just an issue in developing countries, it is also an issue and a neglected subject in countries such as the United States and Canada, and urgently needs to be recognized.
More than 207,000 minors have been legally married in the U.S over the last 15 years; many of whom are married before they reach the age of sexual consent. Until 2015, children aged 12 could obtain a marriage license in Alaska, Louisiana, and South Carolina. A 13-year-old could marry in 14 states including, Florida, New Jersey, Kentucky, Texas, Washington, and 9 others. Meanwhile, child marriages in Canada have been even more unnoticed, having licensed over 3,380 children to marry in the past 18 years. Over a thousand in Ontario alone, nearly 800 in Alberta, and hundreds in most provinces and territories.
So, when does child marriage become slavery? Children who marry to an older adult, and/or children married under 15, have a high possibility of experiencing slavery if the child does not and/or cannot give consent to the marriage, there is a sense of ownership over the child through violence, abuse, forced labor/domestic chores and/or engagement in non-consensual sexual relations and if the child cannot end or leave the marriage. It should be noted that although child marriages affect 84% girls, 16% affects boys, whose cases are equally as important.
In many child marriages, non-consensual sexual relations are all too common, putting children at a higher risk for HIV/AIDS and making childbirth a leading cause of death among 15-19-year-olds in developing countries. More often than not, law enforcement cannot charge the adult with statutory rape if they are married to a minor as the same acts that would be statutory rape outside of marriage are made lawful within. Not to mention, young girls who become mothers are generally at a higher risk for health complications. Additionally, girls in these situations are more likely to stop attending school at a young age, giving them little to no opportunities to find jobs to support themselves or their families.
The International Labour Office (ILO) outlines several strategies for ending child marriages; suggesting a coordinated enactment of various policies to protect vulnerable groups. However, there is no single solution. Regardless, every individual has a role in creating a change and the first step is raising awareness. The youth need to be empowered; girls need to know that opportunity exists, that they can pursue a career, that there is a life for them beyond marriage. Laws need to be changed, loopholes closed, minimum age of marriage raised, vulnerable groups protected, patriarchy dismantled and equality despite differences; the solution exists through changing many different aspects of society.
Child marriages are not limited to developing countries. Child marriages are happening everywhere, on a daily basis; it is happening in your country and it would be shameful to ignore it, knowing something can be done to end it. As members of a “free and just” society, it is our duty to draw attention to this atrocity and our silence makes us complicit to the tragedies created by child marriage. Here is how you can be part of the change; how will you help?