It is not an easy thing to take away someone’s innocence and childhood, especially if it is taken from those who cannot defend it because of their weakness and by those who are supposed to be the source of their strength, in other words their parents.
Depriving a person of his basic rights is a great injustice, and all the more so when it is committed against a child.
Child marriage is an abuse of human rights. In every region of the world, the poorest countries are the most at risk of child marriage, with the 10 countries with the highest rates being found in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“Around 650 million girls and woman alive today were married in childhood, and unless progress is accelerated, that number will remain at least as high through 2030,” it says.
War and conflict in the Middle East have also led to an increase in the rate of child marriage, reaching some 35 per cent of underage Syrians, according to the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research, an NGO.
These rates have increased in Yemen too to reach in recent years 60 per cent of girls under the age of 18 and 40 per cent of those under the age of 15.
In law, a minor is a person under a certain age, called the “legal age”, who reaches his or her majority and acquires all the rights and responsibilities that go with it, generally by the age of 18.
However, some countries allow girls to get married at a much younger age than this.
According to Iranian law, the legal age of marriage is 13 for girls in Iran and below 13 with the consent of the father.
Legislation is one of the most important tools in determining the rights and responsibilities of individuals and in organising society and protecting its citizens.
Thus, setting a minimum age for marriage is important to safeguard children from being married before they are ready.
It is also important that legislation be passed punishing anyone found guilty of facilitating underage marriage, whether parents, the guardians of the child, the husband or the imams of local mosques in some cases. This legislation should prescribe a certain number of years of imprisonment and/or fines.
Although there are laws prohibiting the marriage of girls under the age of 18 in many states, these sometimes do not have enough respect in some communities.
Customs and traditions are still considered to be a direct influence on the marriage of underage girls.
Poverty and poor social conditions can also be main reasons for this frightening phenomenon, especially in rural areas.
Unfortunately, poverty can push families into marrying off their daughters at a very young age without realising the extent of the danger, the harm in marrying a girl at this age, and the extent of the pain of depriving a child of her basic rights for money as if marriage were a business transaction.
Underage marriage has led to many negative consequences for young girls and often social and psychological problems too, especially for girls married before the age of eight to 15 years.
Scientific research and medical studies have indicated the health risks of pregnancy at this age, and there have been a large number of children born with congenital anomalies due to the age of the mother as well as the high number of children.
Many of these children die before birth, and in some countries there is also a high percentage of deaths among young mothers during pregnancy and childbirth as a result of the inability of their bodies to deal with these things.
There are also social risks in addition to legal ones. Every child has the right to a childhood and an education, and no one has the right to deprive him or her of basic human rights, even if the persons who want to do so are their parents.
The enrolment rates of girls in school are affected by a wide range of factors, integrated into two categories by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
The first category includes social and economic factors such as poverty and child marriage and the second cultural factors such as the level of the parents’ education, local attitudes towards girls’ education, and the expected role of women in the community.
Girls’ education is a strategic development priority. However, working on educating girls and reducing rates of child marriage are not only a government responsibility.
There is also a community responsibility in raising awareness about child marriage that falls on the individual and is the responsibility of each member of the community.
An educated woman is not only better able to face poverty and social circumstances, but she can also better educate a new generation and positively affect the health of her children. An educated woman can thus build homes and countries.
“To help a child climb out of poverty, you must educate her, not marry her,” the old saying goes.
* The writer is an attorney at law.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Halting child marriage