Child Marriage and Slavery: One and the Same?

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SANA’A, Yemen — Modern-day slavery continues to be a hot topic for communities addressing human rights and international development. Awareness and education campaigns are thriving in the Western world, and encourage advocates to be a “voice for the voiceless”—to speak out on behalf of the millions of children and adults that are subject to contemporary forms of slavery.

Slavery is often recognized as forced or bonded labor, or the trafficking of persons for sexual or labor exploitation. One of the many guises of slavery that is often overlooked, or perhaps not recognized as slavery, is the plight of child marriage.

Yemen’s recent progress toward ending child marriage has brought the issue to the forefront of the human rights dialogue. The forced marriage of girls under the age of 18, many as young as 12 or 13, is most prevalent in African and South Asian countries. In African countries alone, UNICEF estimates that 42 percent of girls are married before the age of 18, with percentages being much higher in some countries. Niger, for example, has a 76 percent incidence of child marriage. In this practice, girls as young as seven have been given in marriage to men as much as 12 to 18 years their senior.

In many developing countries, this practice is culturally accepted. Child marriage, especially in cases where the bride is 16-18 years old, may not amount to slavery. It is entirely possible, especially for young couples of 16-18 years old, to have a happy and sustainable marriage. However, many child marriages are marred by levels of abuse, coercion and control that align with legal definitions of slavery.

In some cases, is it easy to recognize elements of slavery in child marriage. In countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Algeria, Chad and Lebanon, girls have been abducted to become “wives” during conflict and peacetime situations. In conflict situations, parents have been known to hand their daughters over to warlords to secure safety for the rest of their family. But while these are blatantly non-consensual “marriages,” others may not be so easy to spot.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) defines human trafficking, another name for modern-day slavery, as the act of, “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

In other words, slavery is defined by the Act (what is done), the Means (how it is done) and the Purpose (why it is done). When this concept is applied to the issue of child marriage, the similarities are stark.

The younger the child, the less likely they are to give “free, full, and informed” consent to enter a marriage. The younger a child, the more vulnerable they are, and the more susceptible to outside pressures such as the influence of parents or guardians. Additionally, young girls are often given as brides to settle their parent’s debts or as a source of income for the parents. This type of transaction suggests the commoditization of children and indicates the “ownership” of a child as if they were goods or money.

Once married, child brides have little or no control over their day-to-day activities, mobility or sexual relations. Reports of violence and rape are common, as well as the instillment of fear by way of threats and humiliation. An abusive or exploitative spouse can hide a child bride within the marital home relatively easily, making it difficult to shed light on these issues and therefore creating a “shield” behind which slavery can occur with impunity.

It is difficult for child brides to leave their marriages for several reasons, including fear of violence, inability to support themselves financially and a lack of familial or community support. Young women who do leave such marriages are left vulnerable to other types of slavery and exploitation.

Therefore, the Act of concern is the giving over of a young woman under the age of 18 to an older man in marriage; the Means is very often by way of coercion, force, abuse of power or giving of payment/benefits, and the underlying Purpose often includes sexual exploitation and labor exploitation.

Again, it is possible for a child—mainly older adolescents aged 16-18—to enter into marriage without being subjected to slavery. It is clear, however, that younger children are vulnerable to non-consensual and exploitative marriages, and that a large proportion of children endure numerous human rights violations as a result. Child marriage has a negative impact on the education of girls, and results in dangerous health risks associated with premature sexual activity, pregnancy and childbirth.

Organizations such as Girls Not Brides and Anti-Slavery have been working to raise awareness of child marriage as slavery. Countries like Yemen provide hope for a better future in regards to millions of girls in the developing world, but many challenges remain as child marriage is a deeply entrenched custom in areas of the world.

“Bringing child marriage out of the shadows in relation to slavery matters,” said Catherine Turner of Anti-Slavery International. “As with torture and genocide, governments have a fundamental international obligation to act to end all forms of slavery, no matter where or how it manifests. This includes in the very personal sphere of marriage.”

Sources: Girls Not Brides, Anti-Slavery Report, Forward UK, UNODC

Photo: Too Young To Wed

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About Author

Madisson Barnett

Madisson hails from Elizabethton, Tennessee, and attended Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. She was drawn to The Borgen Project by a desire to stay engaged in poverty alleviation after graduation. Madisson is proud of her experience chasing two giraffes through a field in South Africa, which she describes as, “ill-advised, but exhilarating.”

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