Observing Child Marriage.

Day of the Girl (II): Observing Child Marriage.

©2013. Secular African Society. All Rights Reserved.

“Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody” ~ Jane Austen.

Feminism has no truer values than those of equality, self-determination and independence. For only in learning to value the self, can one equally value others and live in prosperous mutually-fulfilling relationships with them.

October is an über cool month for women. It is an official women’s history month. It is also Domestic Violence Awareness month. More excitingly, it is the month that celebrates young girls! On December 19, 2011, The United Nations declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child. The aim of commemorating this day was to focus attention on recognising girls’ rights, the unique challenges facing girls around the world, and to seek initiatives to empower girls. It is a day that brings light to the many issues that matter to girls, and to lift up voices around the globe to end practices holding girls back!

Two issues of paramount importance to the UN this year are education and child marriage.

This two-part report documents the crises of child education and child marriage in the world today. It discusses the role these two essential factors play regarding girls’ rights and the implications, both positive and negative, of eradicating them. It also analyses the critical role religious supremacy plays in hindering an overhaul of these two predicaments that overwhelmingly affect girls.


Child Marriage Crisis.

In addition to discriminated access to education, the custom of child marriage too, is for the most part, an exclusive curse on girls. Girls suffer from it exceedingly more than boys.

Child marriage is defined by UNICEF as marriage before the age of 18, and one which is usually forced and occurs most often when the bride is 12-16 years old. As opposed to both spouses being teenagers, in child marriage, the husband is typically several years older than his wife, sometimes by decades. UNICEF’S definition also includes cohabitation, which is where couples live together in a sexually active relationship, in an informal union, with one party usually the girl being younger than eighteen. Cohabitation is more common in the Western world (primarily the United States). The logic holds that whereas under 18 marriages should be frowned upon, under 16 marriages should be considered a red line, and under 12 outrightly illegal. In reality, under 10 marriages still occur, largely.

Child marriage was a common practice in virtually every part of the world before modern history. It wasn’t until the advent of the twentieth century that the practice began to be questioned. Its prevalence today is driven by the pseudo benevolence that’s enshrined in traditional patriarchal societies, which have been exacerbated if not at their very core and origin, institutionalised by Abrahamic schools of thought. These patriarchal beliefs relegate women out from the spheres of public influence, and sometimes claim to do it  for women’s own benefit in spite of the dangers to women’s health and lot, child marriage poses. One in every three girls in the developing world is married off by the age of eighteen. Another girl is forced or coerced to marry, every three seconds. In total, every year, ten million girls find themselves coerced or forced into marriage. Ten million. Robbed of their childhood, they are denied health, education and a life of their own choosing. This trend should be deeply worrying particularly because if it keeps up, more than one hundred and forty million girls will become child brides between 2011 and 2020. There are only nine countries, of all two-hundred and forty-two existing countries in the world, whose entire population each, is up to one hundred and forty million. Yet, that many girls are estimated to become child brides by 2020! What this means is that daily, thirty-nine thousand girls will become child brides (fifty million of which will be under the age of fifteen)! It is an epidermic. Studies show that once a girl is married, she is at a greater risk of domestic violence, sex abuse, early pregnancy and birth complications, restricted education, restricted employment prospects, and social isolation. Child marriage is a death verdict. Child marriage is an unfair sentence that strategically reinforces the decapitation of girls’ potentials. No collective group of girls grows up to become greater than the women of yesteryear by making the decision to marry before adulthood!

Poverty, social pressures, political leverage, forced migration, persecution, slavery, and dowry are all factors that contribute to the commonness of child marriage.

Political leverage: Child marriage in 1697 of Marie Adélaïde of Savoy, age 12 to Louis, heir apparent of France age 15. The marriage created a political alliance.

It is questionable how much of a driving force these factors are at reinforcing child marriage, compared to the role that religion plays. Studies are needed in a detailed fashion to explore the inter-relatedness of all these factors as well as the exclusivity of religion as a factor, in perpetuating child marriage. A non-exhaustive analysis of religion as a critically contributive role is given further down below.

Child marriage is most prevalent in Africa and Asia than anywhere else in the world.  it is also legal in a number of other places in and outside of the developing world. The law in Scotland sets marriageable age at 16, with no parental consent required. All other European countries have 18 as the marriageable age with the exception of Malta where the legal age for marriage is 16 (although the age for sexual consent is 18). European states also make allowances for under 18s (not younger that 15, in the event of pregnancy) to marry, subject to court permission, parental consent, municipality’s approval and ownership of home. The only exception being the Vatican who’s marriageability age is similarly 18, but utmost minimum is 14 for females and 16 for males. The age of consent in the Vatican was actually increased from 12 to 18 recently, following a spate of child abuse scandals. Like in the U.S, cohabitation is observed in the U.K and according to a 2005 study, 4.1 percent of all girls in a 15-19 age group in the UK are cohabiting. Cohabitation however, and all other forms of child marriage in Europe and the U.S, constitute a drop in the ocean of child marriage rates around the world. The consequences of the insignificant rates of child marriage on girls in the West is often successfully combated with supportive social structures and long-term welfare systems. By marrying early, child brides in the developing world on the other hand, become hugely dependant on their partners and in most cases only end up putting additional responsibilities on their partners, and pressure on their relationships. Unlike the West, child marriage in the developing world has unique far-reaching consequences.

Until 2008 in the U.S, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints practiced child marriage, as soon as girls were ready to bear children (i.e puberty), as part of its polygamy practise. In response to widespread criticism, the Church later changed its policy to suit that of the local legal age. Henceforth, all Clergymen found trespassing the law were prosecuted by the U.S government. The legal age for marriage in the U.S is 18, with two exceptions: 19 in Nebraska and 21 in Mississippi. It is not uncommon for most states to make allowances for minors below 18 to get married (although hardly ever under 16s), with parental consent and judicial approval, and if the girl in question is pregnant. Give or take, the law varies but the U.S by default, observes child marriage as defined by UNICEF. The law in canada is very much identical. Ideally 18 years old, 16 years with parental consent and 15 years with judicial consent.

Child marriage is also common in Latin America and the Caribbean island nations, where about 29 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. Poverty and the lack of institutions mandating minimum marrying age in these countries are usually cited as reasons for child marriage prevalence.


India is home to 40% of the world’s total number of child brides.

The aforementioned statistics refer to child marriages in non-Muslim countries. Child marriage in regions that are predominantly non-muslim or where Sharia law is not fully or actively practised, constitutes a significant minority of child marriage cases around the world. Where lack of laws/institutions implementing marriageability age is cited as the reason for child marriage, outside the jurisdiction of Islam (like in Latin America or the Church), the practice is much easier to overhaul than when Sharia laws or an adherence to Islamic values is cited as the source of its legislation. There are no studies proving that religion is the sole cause of rampant child marriage in the developing world or anywhere else, but religion is a driving force especially in the developing world. Literalist Sharia application is of all stated legislations, the most unyielding in abandoning child marriage, of girls as young as 9.

Religious Factor.

The top three nations with greater than 20% rates of child marriages below the age of 15, are: Niger, Bangladesh and Guinea. The five nations with the highest observed rates of child marriages in the world, below the age of 18, are: Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh and Guinea. Africa is in fact home to the highest incidence of child marriage. In Niger alone, the incidence of child marriage is as much as 75% of all girls. India supersedes African countries in producing more child brides merely by the fact that india is much more populous. If the top four African nations were just as populous, there is nothing to indicate that they wouldn’t account for more child brides than India. It should be noted that the aforementioned top five countries, although Muslim majority countries, are not necessarily the world’s poorest countries, thus casting doubt on studies that cite poverty as a driving factor for child marriages. It would perhaps be more logical to suggest that child marriages are driven by values, not financial standing.

A central reason why it is possible to keep child marriages in the West to a bare minimum, is the fact that western countries are signatories to a number of international treaties deliberately designed to prevent forced marriage for women and girls, and to abolish sex slavery and similar subjugative domestic practices.  ec92eb625a3b94ccc1ebd1dd8b021e16

One of such treaties is the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage, and Registration of Marriages, adopted by the UN on 7 November, 1962. The treaty reaffirms the consensual nature of marriages and requires the participating countries to establish a minimum marriage age by statue law, thereby overriding religious, customary and tribal laws; and to ensure the registration of marriages, for statistical and implementation of policy purposes. Where countries fail to register child marriages or do not have access to records of child marriages conducted by religious institutions, it is impossible to monitor trend and implement policy. Some religious communities staunchly oppose this treaty and do not accept the supremacy of state laws in this respect. Thus, child marriage, forced marriage and honour killings go unchecked. Attempts to overhaul these trends are often perceived as violations of ‘religious rights’. The problem clearly, is the supremacy of religious edicts over secular pluralist edicts. Religious courts simply do not recognise the authority of UN treaties which demand a minimum marrying age, how much more a minimum marrying age that is acceptable by international standards. It is worth stating that when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UNGA in 1948, Saudi Arabia refused to sign it on religious grounds. Similarly, Iran criticised it in 1982 as “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition”, whose values could not be implemented without violating Islamic Sharia values. In secular democracies, when the marriageable age under a law of any religious community (Muslim or Christian) is lower than that under the law of the land, the secularity of the state prevails. Although what is considered legislative norm in secular democracies like the U.K could soon change. An estimated 70-75 per cent of Islamic marriages there were reportedly not registered under the 1949 Marriage Act. An undercover study also found that a number of Islamic institutions in the U.K were willing to conduct child marriages. Religious edicts may be man’s way of glorifying deities, but they must first glorify girls’ rights!

The Sharia Impediment

Islam permits marriage of girls below the age of 10, on the basis that Sharia law – the religious law which governs Muslim affairs is based in part on the life and practices of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), as described in part in the hadiths. The Prophet married his fourth wife, Aisha and consummated the marriage before she reached the age of 10.

“Narrated ‘Aisha: that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e., till his death)” ~ Sahih al-Bukhari, 7:62:64.

Regarding implementing a marriageability age, reputable scholars of Islam often argue that the age of the girl is not what matters, rather her eligibility for marriage is dependent on when her guardian feels she is mature enough, sexually, for marriage. Definition of this ‘maturity’ is entirely dependent on subjective judgement. Many Islamic scholars and Muslims on many occasions have argued that marrying a girl less than 13 years old is an acceptable practice, so long as her guardian feels she is sexually mature enough. Seeing as this judgement is entirely subjective and derives legitimacy from adherence to the hadiths, many fundamentalist Muslims equally believe that marrying a ‘sexually mature’ girl of age 9 is acceptable and therefore, that Muslim countries should equally legislate such beliefs. Iran issued a statement in 2012 that

“Nine is the appropriate age for a girl to qualify for marriage. To do otherwise is to contradict and challenge Islamic Sharia Law” ~ Iran.

Attempts to ban marriage of minors in Muslim majority countries have been met with threats of jihad, widespread protests by Muslims who deem such attempts “un-Islamic”, and a breakdown in civic relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. About one million children, including those under age 10, are married every year in Iran. Around 85% of these married children are girls not boys, some of who – due to adherence to age-old customs primarily reinforced by religion – are married to settle disputes between families. In Islamic countries, religion and values of family honour and chastity are so intertwined that one very much alludes to the other. The importance of preserving ‘family honour’ and girls virginity in Muslim countries makes pushing girls into marriage well before they’re ready, a fitting aspiration. Under Sharia laws – the laws Muslims believe in – female rape victims accused of adultery could be stoned to death for not providing four Muslim male witnesses to prove she was actually raped. Naturally, child marriages in such a puritanical terrain, is in turn perpetuated by the belief that (forced) “marriage safeguards morality“. Further allowing tolerance for child marriage within Islamic jurisdiction, is the argument that contractual marriage differs from consummated marriage. In response to a 10 year old Yemeni girl – Nada – who ran away from home to escape marrying a 26-year old man, a Wahhab cleric argued against her actions, stating that Islamically, contractual marriage could take effect from day one of a girl’s life. When consummated marriage occurs however, is subjectively deciphered by family members.

Nada, runaway Yemeni child bride.

Wahhab Scholar.

Yemen: In Yemen, over fifty percent of girls are married before 18, some by 8. Attempts to raise marriage age to either 15 or 18 have been opposed, on the grounds that any law setting minimum age for girls is “un-Islamic”. Similarly in Afghanistan, the Parliament rejected a motion to set a minimum age for marriage and ban child marriage, on the grounds that it violated “Islamic principles” to do so.

Nigeria: A dual system of laws governing child marriage exists in Nigeria – one set of laws for the approximately 50 percent Muslim population and one for the approximately 50 percent Christian (and Animist) population. The laws presiding over the affairs of the non-Muslims are secular laws handed down during Nigeria’s British colonial era where child marriage was forbidden for the non-Muslim population, but did not apply to Muslims, thus allowed child marriage for Muslims to continue. Child marriage is widely practiced in all of Nigeria’s Northern states (predominantly in the North-West), which are incidentally the Muslim-majority states, where over 50% of girls do marry before the age of 15. There was an attempt to change Section 29 Subsection 4 of Nigeria’s constitution in 2013 and thereby ban child marriages. The move was met with ardent opposition from the Muslim-majority states in the country, who called any attempts to prohibit child marriages “un-Islamic”. Apartheid is a system of governance where duality of laws exists, one set of laws applies to one group and the other to the other group. Some non-Muslim liberals often argue that there is nothing wrong with Islamic laws applying to Muslims and non-Muslims being governed by other laws. The basis for this form of logic is entirely derived from Muslim appeasement politics. Practically, successful democratic national societies cannot be built on duality of treatment for citizens before the law purely because one merely claims to profess a certain deity and the other professes another deity. What happens when one ceases to profess a given deity and wants to profess the other because of the privileges attached to the other? Religious supremacy creates space necessary for breeding a corrupt mentality.

India: Duality of laws between Muslims and non-muslims is similarly the norm in India which is where incidentally, 40 percent of the world’s child marriages occur. India also has the largest number of child brides in the world, partly due to its immense population (although it is not the most populous country). When the Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed in 1929, it forbade the marriage of a male younger than 21 or a female younger than 18 for Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and other non-muslims in India. Although there were Muslim women who were part of the commission that lobbied for the Act to be passed, they lobbied independent of the Ulemas. The law was codified with the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937, thus did not and currently does not apply to India’s 165 million Muslim population. According to this Muslim Personal Law, the age at which India’s Muslim girls can legally marry is 9 years old, or lower if her guardian (wali) decides she is sexually mature. Till date, attempts to extend the law governing marriageability age among all non-Muslims in India, to Muslims, have been actively opposed by Muslim leaders and considered a “direct interference” on the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937 thus on Muslims’ “religious rights”.

Child marriages in India is not exclusive to Muslims. Akhai Teej is an annual festival and a propitious day for marriage, where Hindu communities have been known to marry off their children. Many scholars argue that child marriage is neither a Hindu teaching nor tradition. Unlike Islam, there is no doctrine regulating or even sanctioning child marriage in Hinduism. They claim that the origin of child marriage in India is traced back to the Muslim invasions that began more than 1,000 years ago. During these successive and rather frequent invasions, unmarried Hindu girls were carried off as booty and raped by the invading jihadi armies. As a result, Hindu families began marrying off their daughters early to protect them. Over time, the invaders became superstition and then custom. There is the local belief among Hindus that any girl reaching puberty or who appears ripe enough to be desired by men and is not married, will ultimately fall prey to sexual depredations. India’s National Plan of Action for Children 2005, published by Indian government’s Department of Women and Child Development, set a goal to eliminate child marriage completely by 2010. This plan hasn’t been successful. Furthermore, secular laws in secular High Courts in India can be outrightly overrun by sharia laws. It will require education and ample political will to reverse this trend.


Sudan, Tanzania, Nepal, Bangladesh: Sudan is another country that has put its foot down on ‘UN-imposed’ minimum marrying age regulations. “Puberty”, with a requirement for willing consent from both parties, is the legal marriageable age in Sudan. In stark contrast, South Sudan which used to be one country with Sudan until both parted ways following a bloody relligious-induced civil war, has emerged a new country with secular laws such as the South Sudan Child Act 2008, which recognises 18 as minimum marriageable age. The argument of consummative marriage and contractual marriage also holds true in Tanzania’s Penal Code. The code explicitly permits marriage of a girl under 12, ‘in accordance with her custom or religion’, for persons of “African or Asiatic” descent, if marriage is not intended to be consummated before she is 12. Otherwise, the legal marrying age in Tanzania is 18 for males and 15 for females. In other words, marrying a 9 year old Native in Tanzania is fully legal so long as sexual relations with her is staved until she is 12! Other countries where the application of Sharia laws is directly responsible for high marriage rates, include Bangladesh and Nepal. Child marriage rates in Bangladesh are among the highest in the world. Sixty six percent of Bangladeshi girls are married by eighteen, thirty two percent of which marry before fifteen. In Nepal, it was determined that 79.6 percent of Muslim girls were married before the age of 15.

The Non-Sharia Impediment.

In East Africa, Ethiopia, a Christian majority country which has ardently practised Christianity for centuries also has staggering incidences of child marriage. Ethiopia ranks among Africa’s top ten child marriage hot spots. Forty-one percent of girls marry by 18, and 14 percent marry by 15. Ethiopia enacted a new Family Code in 2001 to guarantee the equality of women in marriage and set the minimum marrying age for both sexes at 18 (it was 15 in the previous years). Formally adopting the law has not significantly changed the lot of Ethiopian girls, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the failure of the law is interlinked with educational challenges. Many Ethiopian families are still unaware that the law has been changed and the govt’s reformation policy has simply failed to deliver on the education front. Secondly, the political will to strategically implement the new law to the outskirts of Ethiopia’s rural regions is not noticeable if at all it is existent. Although the legal marrying age is now 18, more than 30% of girls specifically from the rural areas are married by 15. In Amhara region, almost half the girls there are already married by the time they are 15 and close to two-thirds are married by 18 ( all stats from: International Center for Research on Women’s). The third obstacle to overhauling child marriage in Ethiopia is the reinforcement of local customs by religious courts. This of course poses a Sharia impediment. Sharia courts have the power to allow marriages below 12 years of age in Ethiopia. In some parts of Ethiopia (and Nigeria) numerous girls are married as young as 7. As noted earlier, further studies are required to establish just how significant a role religious supremacy is, in Ethiopia, in comparison to all other contributory factors.

She is fierce! #girlseducation #aynieducation

Though She Be Little She is Fierce!

In Morocco, prior to 2003, child marriage did not require a court or state’s approval. The new Family Law (Moudawana) raised the legal minimum age from 14 to 18. Till date however, child marriage in Morocco is commonplace. The failure at overhauling the practice rests on the failure to enforce the law in a country where child concubinage and marriage dates back centuries. Child concubinage was very much a part of Moroccan culture until the post-Ottoman era. Requests for child marriage over the last 10 years have been predominantly approved by Morocco’s Ministry for Social Development, and have increased nearly one-third (approximately 29% ) of all marriages. Another contributive legislative factor obstructing the genuine abolishment of child marriage in Morocco is Article 475 of the Moroccan Penal Code. This code is responsible for some child marriages. The law allows rapists to avoid punishment if they marry their underage victims. Article 475 was cast into light recently when a 16 year old Moroccan girl Amina Filali committed suicide by ingesting rat poison, after the act of reporting her rapist to the Morroccan authorities resulted in her being forced to marry him and ultimately endure further abuses by him.

In Pakistan, the exact number of child marriages below the age of 13 is unknown. However, it was reported that 70 percent of girls are married before the age of 16, and more than half of all marriages in the entire country involve girls less than 18 years old. The role that Sharia plays in driving child marriage rates has already been discussed. It is equally a driving contributive factor to child marriages in Pakistan. In addition to the sharia factor is a customary factor. There is a custom prevalent in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, in which families settle disputes or unpaid debts or rulings for punishments, by forcing the guilty family to give their daughter as young as 5 as a wife to the other party. This could be a crime committed by an uncle or distant relative. In Afghanistan, the customary practise is called Ba’ad (practised in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan), and in Pakistan it is called swara or vani.

Child marriage is not only a most vile death verdict, it is an institution that condemns the most vulnerable members of society to a life of untold misery. Of course, in absolute terms, not all child marriages by default result in abuse. It is however unquestionably and deeply abusive to strip anyone of their right to a life of their own choosing.


It is important for change to happen. It is important for the international community to recognise how child marriage hinders girls’ potential, and efforts everywhere to end global poverty and the subjugation of women.

Education plays a vital role in equipping girls with the utmost basics to enable them fashion out prosperous lives for themselves. What’s the worse that could happen by educating a girl?

Malala Yousafzai #girlseducation

She could increase her own income and that of her family. She is more likely to have a choice about when she has a child. She is more likely to survive childbirth. Her children are more likely to grow up healthy and survive their first few formative years. Studies show that an extra year in school increases girls’ potential income by fifteen to twenty-five percent, and each extra year of a mother’s schooling cuts infant mortality by between five and ten percent. If governments around the world exercised much necessary will power, the increase of only one percent in girls’ secondary attendance in any country, could ultimately add 0.3% to the GDP of the prospective country. Education is vital, the key to emancipating women is in educating them. Practically, governments must provide

  • Truly accessible, girl-friendly secondary education.
  • A wide range of educative subjects including secular education that instruct girls on their equality to men and their rights as human beings.
  • Make quality education for girls a national priority.
  • Take sustainable action on child marriage.
  • Devise clear policies to tackle Islamic religious supremacy, ideologically. It is an ideology that must be tackled academically (deconstructed, analysed, critiqued), not only in the classrooms but in public life.
  • Ideology-wise, governments must create mainstream platforms on social media, dedicated to critiquing and debating Islamic ideologies; rather than allow isolated voices to be dismissed as ‘islamophobic Muslim haters’. Ideologies cannot in any way be more sacred than the value of human life.
  • Access to formal education is dependant on personal security. Prevent violence against girls.

For the first time ever, a historic resolution was adopted by the UN to specifically combat child early and forced marriage. Over 100 governments at the UN Human Rights Council recognised that child marriage violates the rights of girls and that work must be done globally to strengthen grass root efforts to abolish this practice. The excitement of the adoption was short-lived by the fact that India and Bangladesh refused to sign the mandate.

The specifics of how the U.N plans to go about implementing both truly accessible secular education and the child marriage resolution are uncertain. On the education front, the U.N has so far, been capitalising on the popularity of Malala to shed light on the threat posed to girls’ education in Pakistan. Malala has been protesting the Taliban’s policies since the age of 11. It is important that people around the world emphasise secular education because the very likelihood of Muslim girls consciously departing from oppressive traditions rests on  their access to non-orthodox education. The more access they have, the more they’re likely to join the fight to end Islamic exclusivity (and judicial supremacy), and the more shot the international community will have at completely abolishing all ideologies that oppress women for no reason other than the fact that they are women!

©2013. Secular African Society. All Rights Reserved.

4 thoughts on “Observing Child Marriage.

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