Not all marriage is consensual.
64 million girls around the world are forced into marriage.
For child brides, marriage is when they lose their freedom and become property. Child brides are forced into sexual activity, child bearing, cleaning, and servitude, all at too young of an age.
Child brides are especially susceptible to HIV as common victims of sexual abuse and a lack of education.
37,000 girls under the age of 18 become child brides every day.
1 in 9 girls is married before they are 15.
Who does child marriage affect?
Child marriage affects both boys and girls, however it disproportionately affects girls and young women. 1 out of every 4 girls marries before the age of 18, and of those who do, it is most often to a spouse older than they are.
A study conducted in 2010 found that girls in the U.S. who married before the age of 19 were 50% more likely to drop out of high school than unmarried girls of the same age, and were only 25% as likely to get a college degree. Additionally, the study found that girls who marry before the age of 16 are 31% more likely to fall under the poverty level later in life.
There is also a wide body of evidence that finds strong associations between child marriage and mental and physical health disorders, as well as a correlation between child marriage and domestic violence.
How is child marriage addressed in current U.S. law?
In the United States, the minimum age for marriage is 18, however, every state allows exceptions under which children can wed. Between 2001 and 2010, 3,850 children were married in New York. In June 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill addressing this problem, reducing the circumstances under which children are allowed to marry.
In New Jersey, as another example, 3,481 children were married between 1995 and 2012, the majority of whom were 16 or 17. These children were allowed to marry with parental consent. 163 of these children were between the ages of 13 and 15, which meant that they received parental consent and a judge approved their marriages. In 27 states, no laws exist which limit how young a child can marry with the authorization of a judge. What is especially troubling is that state laws generally do not mandate that an investigation into whether a child is marrying willingly is carried out.
Also troubling is the fact that most states have not passed legislation that specifically prohibits forced marriage. States that have passed such legislation include California, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Why are child brides more susceptible to HIV?
Child brides are at higher risk of contracting HIV for many reasons which include consent, power imbalances, domestic violence, isolation, and a lack of knowledge.
First, child brides are often forced to practice unsafe sex, and have very little say in how sexual relations within the relationship are conducted. Again, the vast majority of child brides are married to men much older than them, creating an imbalance of power, and putting girls and young women in positions where they are unable to practice safe sex or refuse sex.
Second, child brides are more vulnerable to domestic violence, a factor which has been shown to increase the risk of contracting HIV.
Third, child brides are often isolated in both geographic and social terms, leaving them unable to access HIV and related information and programs. In addition, girls are frequently taken out of school once they are married, leaving them without crucial knowledge related to sexual health.
What can be done about this issue?
One possible solution to this problem would be quite simple in the United States. State legislators should eliminate any exceptions that allow children to wed, reserving marriage for adults. Those who believe that parental consent should be sufficient for child marriage ignore the fact that in many cases parental consent can easily be parental coercion.
1) Every year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. Although boys are sometimes married off, child marriage is driven by gender inequality and disproportionately affects girls.
Young women and girls are also disproportionately affected by the spread of HIV. Globally, young women and girls are twice as likely to acquire HIV as young men and boys.
This is all the more worrying because AIDS-related illnesses are the second leading cause of death among 15-19 -year old girls in sub-Saharan Africa and the third most common cause of death among adolescents globally.
2) Some of the factors that put girls at risk of child marriage also place them at higher risk of HIV infection. These include poverty, low educational attainment and gender inequalities, especially those which limit girls’ ability to make decisions about their own health.
Once married, there are a number of factors that can make child brides vulnerable to HIV:
In many contexts, early sexual debut – including that which takes place within child marriages – is associated with increased lifetime risk of HIV infection.
Child brides are exposed to frequent unprotected sexual activity, in part because there is pressure on them to prove their fertility.
Child brides have little say in how they practice their sexuality, because of their young age and limited power in the relationship, leaving them unable to negotiate safer sex or refuse sex.
They are also more vulnerable to intimate partner violence, a factor that has been shown to increase the likelihood of contracting HIV.
Girls married before the age of 18 tend to have lower levels of education than their unmarried peers, which further increases their risk of contracting HIV.
3) Though child brides desperately need sexual health information and services, they are often isolated – both geographically and socially –and unable to access them. Once married, girls are often taken out of schools where they would have had better access to programs related to sexual health.
Child brides are also often unaware that such information and services are available to them, making it significantly harder to effectively prevent and treat HIV among them.
The Issue of Child Marriage
While early and child marriage affect both girls and boys, the impact on girls is much greater. Girls growing up in poverty or facing crisis, conflict or disaster are particularly at risk.
Child marriage violates girls’ human rights and robs them of their childhood. Girls who are married before they turn 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to stay in school. They are often forced to have children before their bodies are ready.
In communities where child marriage happens, we’re working with girls to make sure they know their rights. We’re educating families on the risks of child marriage, as well as supporting communities to make sure girls are valued and their voices are heard.
12 million girls are married before the age of 18 each year
More than 150 million girls will marry before their 18th birthday by 2030
Over 650 million women alive today were married as children
Africa is home to approximately two-thirds of the global population living with HIV and— despite a decline in HIV infection rates and AIDS mortality— the epidemic continues to take a toll across the continent. At the same time, Africa is also home to 15 of the 20 countries with the highest prevalence rates of child marriage. Niger, Chad, and the Central African Republic top the list of child marriage “hot spots” with 75, 68, and 68 percent, respectively, of women who married before the age of 18. It is no coincidence that high rates of child marriage correlate with high rates of HIV infection in many countries.
In the worst hit countries, girls aged 15 to 17 have four times the rates of HIV infection compared to boys of the same age. In Eastern and Southern Africa, girls account for more than 80 percent of all new HIV infections among adolescents; approximately 7,000 girls between 15 and 24 years-old become HIV-positive every week. Several factors increase the risk of infection for girls; however, these factors are exacerbated when adolescents become married. The age disparity, the power imbalance in relationships, social isolation, the frequency of unprotected sex, intimate partner violence, and forced sex all compound the risk of HIV infection for married adolescents. Existing data from studies conducted in Zambia and Kenya indicate that married adolescents have higher rates of HIV infection compared with unmarried adolescents. According to the United Nations Population Fund, in Zimbabwe, the prevalence of HIV is 6 percent among unmarried female youth aged 15 to 24, compared with 14 percent of those who are married.
Of course, child marriage is not the only factor driving high rates of HIV infection in Africa, but we know there is a close link between child marriage and the spread of HIV in a number of countries. Yet despite this close link, there is a disconnect in terms of how research, policies, laws, and programs respond to these problems. HIV and child marriage interventions are hardly integrated or leveraged to maximize better outcomes. While there has been a strong global response to the HIV epidemic over the past three decades, this has been not the case for the issue of child marriage. Policies and programs for both have developed at different times, pace, and intensity. In addition, while the HIV/AIDS crisis has been seen as a serious global threat, the international response and focus have largely taken a public health approach rather than dealing with stigma, rights, criminalization and the other social issues related to the disease.
All graphics by Jaclyn Saik