In conflict zones, some families view child marriage as a way to preserve their daughter’s honor and protect her from the sexual assault and gender-based violence that commonly occurs in warzones and refugee camps. In reality, however, child marriage only further threatens girls in unstable environments.
In its 2013 report, Untying the Knot: Exploring Early Marriage in Fragile States, the aid organization World Vision found that of the twenty-five nations with the highest rates of child marriage, the majority were countries affected by conflict or natural disasters. The report also cites “poverty, weak legislative frameworks and enforcement, harmful traditional practices, gender discrimination and lack of alternative opportunities for girls (especially education)” as other driving factors of child marriages.
Whatever the causes or justifications, once married, these girls are no longer children: they are wives. And they face daunting obstacles in completing their education and finding employment. Child brides are often trapped in a cycle of poverty that leaves them and their future children especially vulnerable in already unstable contexts.
The health consequences of sexual activity at a young age can also be catastrophic, both physically and psychologically. According to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), pregnancy-related complications remain the leading killer of girls aged fifteen-nineteen years old. Girls under the age of fifteen are five times more likely to die in childbirth than girls over the age of twenty. The most recent example comes from Yemen, where an eight year old girl bled to death from internal injuries sustained during intercourse with her forty-year-old husband.
The ICRW report also notes that girls married before the age of eighteen are more likely to experience domestic violence and depression than those who marry later. Some even choose to end their own lives. And the consequences of child marriage go beyond the bride herself. UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children report found that an infant born to a mother under the age of eighteen is sixty percent more likely to die in its first year of life than one born to a mother over the age of nineteen.
Despite the grim data, few programs and laws are implemented in conflict zones, such as Syria and Afghanistan, to prevent this dangerous practice.
Even when laws protecting the rights of girls and women have been passed, many governing bodies are not held accountable when they fail to uphold them. For example, in 2009, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai signed The Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which “imposes criminal penalties for child and forced marriages, domestic violence, and numerous other abuses against women.” Yet according to the recent Afghanistan: Ending Child Marriage and Domestic Violence report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), this law and others intended to prevent violence against women are not being sufficiently enforced.
Child marriages are still common in Afghanistan, with an estimated thirty percent of Afghan women married before they reach eighteen years old. Accordingly, maternal mortality and morbidity rates in the country are some of the highest in the world. The HRW report calls on the Afghan government to take urgent measures to prevent child marriage and domestic violence, including passing a law to make the minimum age of marriage eighteen and launching awareness campaigns. Governments around the world should adopt these measures, otherwise women in conflict zones will continue to be threatened by dangers both outside and inside of their homes. And the world will lose even more young women who might have changed it for the better.