Why shouldn't a girl get married?

Millions of girls still have to get married

Domestic and sexual violence, mistreatment, exploitation, death: the effects of early marriage on the lives of young girls are devastating and well known. You are robbed of educational and development opportunities; their health risks increase. According to estimates by the UN Children's Fund UNICEF, 15 million girls are married before their 18th birthday every year, some of them have just celebrated their tenth birthday. They have to drop out of school, take care of the household of a man they have never seen before, and get pregnant even though their body isn't ready for it.

Pregnant before puberty

This has fatal consequences: According to a study by the child protection organization "Save the children", there is a direct connection between early marriage, pregnancy and child mortality. "During pregnancy and childbirth, the risk for the young mothers-to-be increases," says Susanne Schröter. She heads the Frankfurt Research Institute Global Islam and is familiar with this study. The ethnologist researches, among other things, the change in gender orders in the Islamic world. Child marriage is a gender-specific phenomenon that predominantly affects girls - regardless of religious affiliation, according to Schröter. "After the birth, the girls are overwhelmed with their motherhood because they are still children themselves. It is an absolute scandal," said Schröter. The young girls are systematically suppressed, since the groom is often many years older than the bride. "The girls cannot defend themselves because the balance of power is such that they cannot offer any resistance," explains Schröter.

Child marriage is widespread in India. Here the eleven-year-old Anita marries her 16-year-old groom

Child and forced marriage are increasing

On the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, marriage is permitted from the age of 18 in most countries. Between 2015 and 2017, countries such as Chad, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Guatemala raised the minimum age for marriage to this age limit. To this end, they have abolished exemptions that allowed minors to marry with the consent of their parents or a judge. For Susanna Krüger, managing director of the children's rights organization "Save the Children" Germany, the declining number of child marriages in these countries is a great success. "The legal framework helps to change social structures in the long term," she says in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

However, since 2015, illegal child marriages have increased from 11.3 million to 11.5 million worldwide, a trend that is continuing. And 82.8 million girls between the ages of ten and 17 are still not legally protected from child marriage. If even parents or judges are allowed to give their consent to a marriage within the framework of the exemption, 96.1 million girls are at the mercy of a possible marriage - especially in the Middle East or in North Africa, South Asia as well as West and Central Africa.

Laws compete with religion and patriarchy

But the law alone is not effective and cannot prevent the increasing number of child brides. "It's a mixture of many factors," explains Krüger. "Religion, culture or social, patriarchal structures are closely interwoven and mutually dependent." Poverty and armed conflicts in particular kept the child marriage system intact.

"Parents don't always get married because they want it to be," says Krüger. Girls from rural areas and poor families are particularly affected. For financial reasons, they are forced to marry their young girls to mostly older men. On the one hand, poverty rates are falling in some countries, but things are getting worse for the poorest there. The poverty gap is drifting further and further apart. "Many families have no way of relieving themselves of this economic pressure," says Krüger.

Conflict promotes early marriage

In addition to economic aspects, armed conflicts in particular promote early marriage, says the ethnologist Schröter - for example in Syria. "After the outbreak of the conflict and especially after the refugee movements, the number of child marriages increased enormously," she said in an interview with DW. "You have married girls at eleven or twelve with the assumption that this would help to protect them, for example from sexual abuse. Escape always creates an increased need for security in people. In doing so, they refer to their tradition, which gives them security."

According to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, child marriages should no longer be allowed after 2030. In order to achieve this goal, "Save the Children" relies on an international conference on the abolition of child marriages in Senegal, at which government representatives, religious authorities, child rights organizations, young people and UN agencies discuss solutions to abolish these illegal marriages.

In exchange with parents and stakeholders

The human rights organization calls on politicians to take decisive action against child marriage. "The most important thing is education and that the children and girls stay in school," says Krüger. There is a lot to do in the communities. This does not only include educational work. The families need security so that the girls not marrying have no financial consequences. "We want to influence government programs that there are financial opportunities for parents or for girls to be able to work later," she says. Positive examples are important for this - and the understanding of parents and communities.

Latin America is making the greatest strides in the fight against child marriage. The number of child marriages there fell within two years after the change in the law. There only about every fifth girl is promised a stranger. A glimpse of hope.