Child marriage as ‘security’?

thato_motaungAuthor: Thato Motaung
Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

International Day of the Girl Child: 11 October 2014

“The female soldiers did everything we did. In addition they were forced to cook for the commanders, wash their clothes, and some were forced to have sex with them.” – Khalid al-Amin on life as a conscript, Aljazeera interview – Escaping Eritrea’s ‘open prison’ (3 October 2014)

The legal age at which a girl can get married in Eritrea is 18 years, however many marry earlier as an act of great desperation.

Child marriage is prohibited in numerous international human rights instruments, namely; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) and in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. That said, child marriage is nevertheless rampant on the African continent. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) figures (2013), out of the 20 countries most affected by child marriage, Africa hosts 15. ‘Typical’ drivers of child marriage include customary/traditional beliefs, desire for economic gain or to provide security. I hesitated at the mention of ‘security’ because how does a minor gain security from being forced to engage in sexual reproduction, childbearing and birth within a completely unprepared body and mind?

fear of military service is driving some to commit their minor children to marriage is appalling

The word ‘security’ has been succinctly defined as “the state of being free from danger or threat”. In Eritrea’s militarised society where everyone, sometimes as young as 15 years — despite the legal age being 18 — is forcibly enlisted into military service for an undetermined period of time and compelled to live the life of a soldier in a country not at war — I began to weigh the odds of a child’s ‘security’ in such an environment. The truth is, Eritrean mothers and families are faced with a dilemma, a very difficult choice when it comes to the future of their girls. Families either allow their daughters to be conscripted where they run the risk of becoming victims of sexual harassment, assault and torture in military training camps or marry them off before they turn 18 and encourage early pregnancy because the government is more likely to overlook married or pregnant girls not fulfilling their forced military service. Here, families are compelled to contemplate the possibility of child marriage as the lesser of two evils. What a disturbing prospect.

In 2013, prevalence of child marriage in Eritrea stood at 47%, placing the country at thirteenth in the world in terms of child marriage. Essentially, the high prevalence rate can be viewed mainly as an act of desperation – the choice between compulsory national service, both for women and men, and early marriage.

Child marriage as a traditional practice is becoming out-dated in Eritrea. Why then is it still an issue? Global trends reveal that the most vulnerable girls are from poor uneducated communities. Eritrea is no exception as no one is exempt from military service. As a result families consider early marriage for their daughters as an escape route from the endless national service. However, as UNICEF research shows, girls who marry young abandon formal education, become pregnant and are confined to a domestic life – essentially, girls are denied the right to participate freely in everyday life.

In 1993, Eritrea became a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the first legally binding instrument intended to protect and promote children’s rights. To further show its commitment; in 1999 the country ratified the ACRWC. Consequently, Eritrea is bound by all rights guaranteed for children, namely the right to a childhood, education and protection from sexual exploitation. The CRC has continually urged Eritrea to ensure that customary laws that still allow for child as young as 13 to be married are brought in line with standards set at in international, regional and national instruments which set 18 as the minimum age for marriage.

Child marriage is malicious subordination of girls, and through it the unequal relations between men and women is maintained. The fact that fear of military service is driving some to commit their minor children to marriage is appalling. The fact that families are cornered into risking the lives of their daughters to dangers associated with child birth at an early age, or forcing them to abandon their studies is unacceptable. While sparing their daughters the spectre of endless military service, through being married off as minors children are exposed to other human rights violations that will impact on them for the rest of their lives and negatively affect the nation at large for generations to come.

At first we considered the possibility of a lesser evil – my conscience sees none.

About the Author:
Thato Motaung is a researcher in the fields of gender, peace and security and human rights on the African continent. Prior to working for the Centre, she was a Research Fellow to the African Union Commission, Bureau of the Chairperson in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She holds a Master of Science in European Studies: Transnational and Global Perspectives from the K.U. Leuven in Belgium, and a Bachelor of Science in Political Studies & Industrial and Economic Sociology from Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

One Comment on “Child marriage as ‘security’?”

  1. […] Motaung, Child marriage as ‘security’?, […]

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