23/01/2014 11:48 GMT | Updated 25/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Child Marriage Sets Girls Up for a Lifetime of Abuse

Khadijetou was born in Mauritania in 2002 and was force-fed from the age of 7. In 2010, she was married to a man, 10 years older than her father.

At the time of her wedding, she was extremely overweight. Khadijetou fell pregnant in 2011 and gave birth by cesarean section in order to save the life of her child. Her health consistently deteriorated and twenty days later, she died aged 11 years old.

Since there is no law in Mauritania forbidding child marriage or force-feeding, no action is being taken against anyone who may have been involved. L'Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille (AFCF) is calling for both laws to be enacted and implemented urgently.

Meanwhile, Lulu was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) in Tanzania at the age of 4. At 14, having completed her primary education, she was forced into a polygamous marriage. Local organisation Network Against Female Genital Mutilation (NAFGEM), met with her parents, who agreed return her dowry of 8 cows and allow her to continue her education.

Tanzania's law allows girls to be married at the age of 14 with a parent's or guardian's consent. There is no legal protection for girls like Lulu, who must rely on their own courage and the support of thinly-stretched non-governmental organisations when they face FGM, which is outlawed but largely unenforced, and child marriage.

This week's release of Equality Now's report on 'Protecting the Girl Child: Using the Law to End Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Related Human Rights Violations', was written in conjunction with research facilitated by TrustLaw Connect, carried out by Latham & Watkins LLP, in collaboration with AQLAAL Advocates (Pakistan), Ashurst Australia (Papua New Guinea), Bafakih & Nassief Lawyers and Legal Consultants (Saudi Arabia), Dr Kamal Hossain & Associates (Bangladesh), Kirthi Jayakumar (India), MMAKS Advocates (Uganda), P&A Asia (Cambodia), Tilleke & Gibbins (Thailand) and Webber Wentzel (Swaziland).

The detailed report illustrates that child marriages does not take place within a vacuum. It is part of a continuum of abuse experienced by a girl and is often linked with FGM, sex trafficking or force-feeding before marriage, depending on location, and rape, domestic violence, and removal of future opportunities afterwards.  

Furthermore, when a child bride gives birth, the vicious cycle of poverty, poor health, curtailed education, violence, instability, disregard for rule of law and legal and other discrimination often continues into the next generation, especially for any daughters she may have.

Child marriage directly affects approximately 14 million girls a year. It legitimises human rights violations and the abuse of girls under the guise of culture, honour, tradition, and religion. It is part of a sequence of discrimination that begins at a girl's birth and continues throughout her entire life.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which have no laws aimed at preventing child marriage, have further controls over girls and women at various stages of their lives. Although there have been indications that both countries might introduce a minimum age of marriage in the near future, this will be a challenge for both countries - particularly Saudi Arabia, where a harmful system of male guardianship prevails.

Meanwhile, judicial discretion to allow child marriage in countries such as Morocco still enables girls to be married off after being raped, a decision which exonerates the rapist, although a revision of the law is possible in the near future.

Other countries featured in the report, such as Kenyado have a minimum age of marriage law, but implementation is patchy. This also results in failure to protect girls at risk. As in Tanzania, FGM is linked to child marriage in Kenya and helps set up child brides for a lifetime of abuse.

There has also been regress in several countries too recently, including in Iran, where the number of girls under the age of 15 married off has risen and parents can now marry their adopted children; and in Egypt, where discussions took place on lowering the minimum age of marriage to nine years old.

Ending child marriage internationally should be a global priority and included within the post-2015 development framework. A set of indicators that reflect the full range of issues surrounding child marriage should also be reviewed by donors when reviewing countries for development funding.

At national level, a comprehensive, joined-up approach is essential, which links the justice sector with healthcare, education, community and other leaders. Such an initiative should tackle child marriage not as a single abuse, but rather related to other manifestations of discrimination and violence against women and girls. 

Without such structural frameworks in place, which recognise child marriage as part of a harmful cycle of abuse, girls will remain vulnerable not only to being married off at a young age, but to a lifetime of abuse.

Equality Now is an international human rights organisation, which aims to end violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world.