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Put an end to child marriage

Mariel Müller
November 3, 2016

Child marriage impedes a girl's education and fosters violence. It must be eradicated, says Monika Michell from the women's rights organization Terre des Femmes.

Kinderehe in Indien
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/P. Hatvalne

Deutsche Welle: It is estimated that up to 700 million women worldwide were married as children. (Above a child marriage in India.) In many cases, girls are married to older men and some of the girls are even under the age of 15. What are the reasons for early marriage?

Monika Michell: Poverty plays a role. In relation to the patriarchal ideas that prevail in families, it means that girls are worth less than boys. If a family can no longer afford to feed many children, then the girls are usually the first to be married off so that there are fewer mouths to feed. A major factor at play in child marriage is education. The less educated a girl is, the higher the chances are that she will be married before her eighteenth birthday. Because of a woman's low value in society, she will probably be married off if she is poor. That plays a role in refugee camps at the moment.

Do the girls enter marriage in refugee camps or in their home countries?

Berlin Monika Michell, TERRE DES FEMMES am Arbeitsplatz
Monika Michell, Terre des FemmesImage: Uwe Steinert

SOS Children's Villages, a non-governmental development organization for children, looked at the numbers of underage marriages in Syria.

Before the war, 13 percent of marriages were child marriages and now, the ratio has climbed to 50 percent. I assume that marriages are concluded in refugee camps.

In Syria, a court must decide whether a girl has reached sexual maturity and is thus allowed to enter marriage before she is seventeen. I am sure there is some sort of jurisdiction in refugee camps; there, a short religious ceremony usually takes place.

What are the physical and emotional consequences of an early marriage for young girls?

An early marriage usually means early pregnancy and thus, serious health risks for the girl. Her childhood has abruptly come to an end and in many cases, the girls are simply overwhelmed. The risk of domestic and sexual violence is higher in child marriages and it can lead to later traumas. Normally, girls are much more dependent on their husbands. Because they have been denied a childhood, they cannot exercise their right to education and a normal development, including the child's play they are entitled to. That often leads to depression and many of those affected are prone to suicide.

Young girls are generally at risk of being sexually abused. Is that areason for parents to prefer marrying their daughters young?

Kinderehe in Afghanistan
This Afghan girl is sheltering in a safe house after fleeing a forced marriageImage: Getty Images/P. Bronstein

In many of their home countries, there are patriarchal structures in which the family's honor rests on the daughter's behavior. That means if the girl has pre-marital sex, then the family's reputation is damaged. That has serious consequences in their social environment and must be prevented at all costs.

An early marriage seems to be a guarantee. I also believe that protection, although it sounds paradoxical, is most certainly provided.

While fleeing, women are usually the first ones to be threatened by sexual violence. Many men may actually say, "Oh, she's married, I won't dare touch her." I think it is possible but not a guarantee.

Why does Terre des Femmes demand a general ban on marriage under the age of 18?

Tansania Mädchenschule Schülerinnen Afrika
Child marriages are also still common in AfricaImage: Zuberi Mussa

We object to marriage under 18 because it is a threat to a child's welfare. Of course, no action should be taken against those affected and we are not demanding forced divorces or separation. When the girls turn 18, they should verify, 'Okay, I want this marriage – or not.' Minors are much easier to influence.

It is easier to exert subtle pressure on them so they can supposedly agree to such a marriage of their own accord. They often have no idea what a marriage like that means. They see a wonderful celebration and a beautiful dress. That is why we say that the girl must be 18 to be fully responsible and aware when she says "yes." That is why we do not speak of forced marriage but instead, early marriage, although early marriage can be forced. Those who agree to such a marriage because they think they have better protection should ask themselves whether that is a reason to get married. Do they not need a different kind of protection?

Monika Michel is a consultant in the "violence in the name of honor" section at the women's rights organization Terre des Femmes. Since 2010 she has been working on early marriage, forced married and honor killings. For the past 25 years, Terre des Femmes has been promoting equality and self-determination for women.

The interview was conducted by Mariel Müller.