ANALYSIS Freda Louwes 5 October 2020
The Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 promotes the elimination of all harmful practices, such as child marriage, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation (United Nations 2020). Still, child marriage remains a prevalent global issue.
Child marriage refers to any marriage in which at least one of the two parties is under the age of 18 years. This analysis seeks to point out correlations between the COVID-19 pandemic and an increased practice of child marriage.On March 11, 2020 COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Even though we have seen the severe consequences of the virus on our economy, our social lives and political situations, many consequences have not yet managed to capture the attention of the mainstream media. Child marriage being one of such consequences.
Despite international and national legal frameworks prohibiting child marriage, it remains prevalent in many societies, particularly in the Global South. Data presented by UNICEF shows that 21% of all girls worldwide were married before they reached the age of 18. A total of 12 million girls each year enter into child marriages. The last decades have been formative for improvements in the field of children’s rights. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) entered into force in 1999 and includes even more explicit provisions on the rights of the child than the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The ACRWC directly addresses the concept and practice of child marriage. Article 21 (2) of the ACRWC states that “Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and effective action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years and make registration of all marriages in an official registry compulsory”.
Despite this unambiguous provision, child marriage persists to be commonly practiced. Gender inequality, poverty, and inadequate education are the most influential factors in this matter. Girls were then reduced to mere objects of property which must fulfil the duty of marriage and reproduction and thus they are deprived of their human rights. Caretaking of children is bound to add additional responsibilities to the lives of parents. Girls in particular are more often than boys regarded as a burden. Marriage presents an opportunity of nullifying such responsibilities as the girls are no longer seen as children. The current COVID-19 pandemic has put many families in positions of financial distress. In countries with a high proportion of informal workforce, the lack of social security measures hinders families from acquiring enough food, paying for electricity, and affording school. Food insecurity is a major factor contributing to the practice of child marriages. In the informal sector, people are highly dependent on mobility. The lockdown, which has been rigorously implemented in many African states has caused a loss of income for many families. Child marriage poses the opportunity for those families to have a smaller circle of people that has to be provided for. Furthermore, education is another concern when discussing child marriages. Education is a right as described in Article 11 (1) of the ACRWC: “Every child shall have the right to an education.” During COVID-19 dropout rates from school have increased. Families can no longer afford school fees, so children can no longer attend schools and no longer receive an education that should promote the development of their personality, talents, abilities (Article 11 (2a)), foster their respect for human rights (Article 11 (2b)) and promote their understanding of health care (Article 11 (2h)). Having to take on responsibilities that go along with the concept of matrimony hinder children from exploring their own interests and ideas for their future. They do not receive the opportunity to learn about human rights, their own rights and can therefore not know that they have the right to defend themselves against harmful practices. Without education children cannot learn about health risks neither, especially the risks of sexual relations. They enter into a marriage without being fully informed about what that entails and without having to give their consent.
Child brides are being deprived of their rights to health, education, and safety. The ACRWC includes the prohibition of any harmful social, cultural, and religious practices. Nevertheless, child marriage is still being practiced despite the mental and physical torments the children must endure. The welfare of the child, which is in the title of the children’s rights legal framework, is neglected. A study published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) shows an increase in child marriages during the COVID-19 pandemic. Predictions made by the UNPF estimate that resulting from the COVID-19 crisis a total of 13 million child marriages will be officiated within the next decade to come. Due to food insecurity, economic uncertainties, and dropouts from school because of school closures.
The COVID-19 crisis has impacted the situation of child marriages on the African continent in so far as families resort to it in order to lessen the financial burden and see their children being “cared” for. With rising awareness on feminism we need not forget about the girls, as they will go on becoming to females of the future. Empowering girls, particularly in circumstances in which they are exposed to harmful practices, must be a social and political concern during these unprecedented times. Because we are all born equal and should receive equal respect, dignity and rights.
Freda Louwes is a student assistant at the Chair of African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth. She is a student of Geographic Development Studies in Africa.