Stephanie Sinclair’s must-read New York Time’s coverage of the child bride crisis in Guatemala brings to light a much larger and systemic problem: indentured servitude and sexual slavery to older men under the guise of so-called “marriages.”
It’s a global problem affecting one-third of all girls in the developing world. Right now, an estimated 15 million children are married every single year before their eighteenth birthdays. Sandra is one such bride in Sinclair’s article – she’s 14, a mother, and has already been married for three years.
In my work as a doctor, I have evaluated young girls and women seeking asylum in the United States, after they were forced into marriage and endured daily verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. I have witnessed the severity of their trauma first-hand, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, and other serious mental health problems.
While some countries require parental consent, enforcement is lax and a range of factors, including long-standing cultural traditions, can influence parents’ decisions to grant permission for their daughters to enter into a contract of marriage. Poverty plays a major role in parents’ decisions to marry their underage daughters off, leaving one less mouth to feed, and in some places, it’s still tradition for the bride’s family to receive a dowry. Some parents believe that early marriage provides protection for their daughters.
However, evidence shows that — instead of sheltering young girls and women — rates of sexual and physical assault are high among child brides. According to a survey conducted by the International Center for Research on Women, girls who were married before the age of 18 years were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later, and they were three times as likely to report being forced to have sex without their consent in the previous six months.
Many young girls are also forced to bear children against their will and face severe complications during pregnancy due to their young age and lack of proper medical care. Some girls are left to care for children on their own with no help or guidance, and, in some cases, they are abandoned by their husbands, leaving them with the responsibility of being a single mother with no income. And, because they are pulled out of school at such an early age, their financial future is often very bleak, perpetuating a relentless cycle of misery and unfulfilled potential.
Consent is the central problem here. Young girls simply cannot provide consent for marriage at 11 or 12 years of age. In theory, these children are protected through international law. Both the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly describe child marriage as a violation of children’s rights. We need to continue to work to ensure that these treaties are more widely ratified (the US has yet not ratified The Convention on the Rights of the Child), to demand enforcement of these protections, and to work to decrease societal tolerance for these practices.
And this begins with re-examining the very language and words we use to frame this problem. “Child marriage” needs to be seen and understood for what it truly is — child abuse. “Child marriage” is just another euphemism to perpetuate indentured servitude and sexual slavery of young girls and women.
Ultimately, “child marriage” is a rhetorical device intentionally designed to cloud our everyday language and blunt our ability to talk about the problem. This tactic is unfortunately very common – both to disguise abuses against humans and animals. For example, apologists for government-sponsored torture still refer to the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” and factory farmers continue to call small gestation crates for pregnant pigs “maternity pens.” Child marriage must be reframed and discussed as an illegal violation of human rights, just as the international community has responded to the problem of female genital mutilation.
Fortunately there are many groups and organizations working to end this abuse, including Girls not Brides, a global partnership of more than 400 civil society organizations committed to enabling girls to fulfill their potential. Education and advocacy is also gaining attention and momentum. Just recently, Angelina Jolie recently spoke out against child marriage in an interview with Ms. Magazine, calling attention to a 2014 documentary called “Difret.”
I encourage everyone to read Sinclair’s eye-opening piece on this issue facing children worldwide. These children need our voices.