At a time when girls in many countries are thinking about their math homework or planning their next birthday party, Rahar Maya Biswokarma was trying to understand what it meant to be married at the age of 10.
“I was turned into someone’s wife before I knew what it meant to me,” said Rahar Maya, in a magazine interview. She is now a 50-year-old mother of grown-up children, living in Nepal. “I felt I was discarded and my parents no longer loved me….All my joy was gone at once.”
Rahar Maya is one of a countless number of victims of a centuries-old tradition that to this day violates the full range of human rights, very often with devastating consequences for the health and well-being of the girl forced to marry.
October 11, 2013, is the International Day of the Girl Child, a day that puts special attention on girls’ rights and the challenges they have in exercising them. The Center for Reproductive Rights has chosen that day specifically to release the first pieces of a sweeping report on child marriage (Child Marriage in South Asia: Stop the Impunity) that seeks accountability from governments in South Asia, where child marriage still flourishes.
South Asia is home to almost half of all child marriages that take place in the world. This happens despite the fact that most countries have national laws in place prohibiting child marriage and constitutional norms affirming that fundamental rights deserve the highest protection by government. And despite the fact that governments have signed international human rights treaties which have been interpreted as supporting the establishment of a minimum legal marriage age of 18.
Estimates suggest that as many as 130 million girls will marry between 2010 and 2030—unless governments stop this practice immediately.
Rahar Maya’s story is, therefore, all too common. Child marriage has damaged her irreparably—both emotionally and physically.
She gave birth to her first child at 15. A very short time after the delivery, she suffered uterine prolapse, a condition in which the uterus descends from its normal position, and it is directly related to the extremely young age at which she gave birth. For more than three decades, she suffered pain and embarrassment until she could finally get surgery.
Meanwhile, she says she felt abandoned by her parents, emotionally neglected by her husband, and shunned by his family for failing to live up to expectations that would be more easily navigated by an adult.
Missing from Rahar Maya’s life were the dignity and many layers of personal fulfillment that come when an individual’s human rights are protected and nurtured. By its very nature, child marriage triggers a continuum of violations that spreads across a girl’s life into womanhood and robs millions of girls and women of their fundamental rights:
- Rights to life and health—early pregnancy, very much a consequence of child marriage, is the largest cause of death for girls age 15-19 in low- and middle-income countries
- Rights to nondiscrimination and equality—when governments allow child marriage to continue, they are saying that girls are less valuable and not equal in dignity to boys
- Rights to freedom from torture and cruelty—physical and mental suffering, particularly caused by early pregnancy and sexual violence, are a serious consequence of child marriage
- Rights to consent to marriage and freedom from slavery—very often in child marriage, girls are seen as property and not people
- Rights to education, work, and economic autonomy—girls often are taken out of school for marriage, depriving them of education and skills to make decisions about their health and future
- Right to privacy—girls have every right to live their private life free of arbitrary interference from others
All of these issues are inextricably linked to the rights of girls and women. “Child marriage violates the human rights of girls in the most profound ways and perpetuates the oppression of women,” says Melissa Upreti, the Center’s Regional Director for Asia. “The high incidence of child marriage in South Asia illustrates the lack of commitment of governments in the region to end this harmful practice despite clear evidence of the devastating impact on girls’ and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and dignity as human beings. This publication is intended to serve as a resource for those looking to hold their governments legally accountable for child marriage so that the goal of ending child marriage in a generation may be achieved.”
International law is clear. Human rights bodies across the globe have been utterly direct: Children below the age of 18 should not be forced to marry. Both parties to a marriage must consent. But many governments continue to ignore the problem in practical terms even as they officially condemn the practice.
Child marriage also violates girls’ rights as protected under national constitutions throughout the region. “Child marriage is not just a human rights crisis in South Asia, but also a grave violation of girls’ constitutional rights,” says Payal Shah, Senior Legal Adviser for Asia. “Governments own constitutions obligate them to protect girls from the continuum of harms, including reproductive health risks and sexual violence, resulting from child marriage.”
It’s time for governments in the region to be accountable to their own laws and those enshrined in international law, and fix the systemic problems that allow child marriage to continue. Child marriage cannot be justified in the name of culture or tradition. This is a human rights crisis, but one that is imminently solvable.
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