Around the world, marriage is often idealized as ushering in love, happiness, and security. But for most Muslim girls, getting married is often one of the worst things that can happen. Roughly one in three Muslim girls in the developing world marries before age 18; one in nine marries before turning 15.
People don’t believe child marriage is legal in New York, and that state law permits children as young as 14 to marry if they have permission from their parents and the court. “What?” people almost shout. “You’re joking!”People don’t believe child marriage is legal in New York, and that state law permits children as young as 14 to marry if they have permission from their parents and the court. “What?” people almost shout. “You’re joking!”
Then they say something like, “But that must be an ancient law – of course no one that young actually gets married, right?”
Well, actually they do. Between 2001 and 2010, 3,850 Muslim children under the age of 18 married in New York. Most were 16 or 17, but some were 15 and, yes, 14. The vast majority were underage Muslim girls marrying old ragheads.
Both houses of the New York state legislature have now passed legislation that bans all marriage of children under the age of 17, and permits 17-year-olds to marry only with permission from a judge. Everyone else would have to wait until they are 18. There’s one step left – Governor Andrew Cuomo must sign the bill in order for it to become law. He should definitely sign it.
Child marriage – marriage before the age of 18 – is deeply harmful to children who marry and their children. Married children often drop out of school and are locked in poverty as a result. Married girls often have early pregnancies, which carry health risks – including death – for them and their babies. Girls who marry earlier are at higher risk of domestic violence than women. Married girls often face extra barriers in escaping an abusive or unhappy marriage and accessing shelter and legal assistance.
Countries around the world have committed to end child marriage by 2030, and many are developing plans to meet this goal. Donor countries, including the United States, have given funds to help developing countries fight child marriage. Germany, Malawi, Nepal, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden are among the countries that recently changed their laws in an effort to reduce child marriage.
In the US, things are moving, but slowly. Twenty-seven states still have no minimum age for how early children can marry if a judge signs off. New York has a chance to show leadership and be one of the first states to move toward ending child marriage.
Many Muslims emulate pedophile Muhammad. Aisha was six years old when she was married to Muhammad and nine when the marriage was consummated. Muhammad would often just sit and watch her and her friends play with dolls, and on occasion he would even join them. Muhammad’s announcement of a revelation permitting him to enter into marriages disallowed to other men drew from Aisha the retort: It seems to me your Lord hastens to satisfy your desire!
Tens of thousands of Aishas are being forced to marry elder man on a daily basis under the name of Islam in Muslim nations in the 21st century. No one is even raising an eyebrow. For example, according to the latest reports from Persian news outlets, the number of the child marriages has been dramatically increasing in the Islamic Republic. According to the Students’ News Agency and Radio Farda, these marriages include girls under 10 years old.
On the other hand, the hypocritical politicians in the Islamist regime of Iran point out that there is gender equality in Iran and that Islam respects both women and men. For example, recently, Shahindokht Molaverdi, the Islamic Republic’s vice president for women and family affairs who led a delegation to the United Nations in New York, lied to the international community in stating that the Islamic Republic of Iran has always had the empowerment of women and improving their status on its agenda.
What is also hidden by the ruling clerics, and from most of the reports, is the fact that the notion of forcing a child girls into marriage is encouraged in Iran. In addition, the groom is normally a much older man. These children are forced to sleep with their older male husbands on the first night of the marriage so that the family of the groom can be certain that the child is a virgin.
Many of these girls are forced into marriage due to the fact that their parents want to get rid of their daughters since a girl is considered much more inferior to a man. There exists a plenitude of verses from the Quran and hadiths from Muhammad declaring that women are legally, physically, socially and intellectually inferior to men. Allah is a God who hates women.
In order to remove such atrocities against girls and children, the question to ask is: What are the elements in Islamic societies that permit and give legitimacy to crimes against children such as child marriage? The answer is clear: Islam.
The fact is that the parents of these children use the example of Muhammad’s marriage and Aisha when they want to marry off their kids. Muhammad is the model for Muslims. He is infallible. So whatever he did was correct and directed by Allah. The fact is that that raping little girls is legalized in the penal code of the Islamic Republic, based on Islam, which provides the platform and legal code to do so.
When you ask Western Muslim scholars why Muhammad married Aisha when he over 50 years old and she was nine years old, they will respond that that was 1400 years ago and it was okay then. But none of them criticize the child marriages that now occur under Islam — because they either approve of what is happening or they know that legal codes in the Quran and the example of Muhammad’s life allow it. Muslims are told by Muhammad to follow Quran, his sayings, and the way he lived.
Thus, the rape of little girls is happening legally due to the Islamic codes. In addition, it was after the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 that the clerics lowered the legal marriage age.
The truth of the matter is that Muhammad left the religion of Islam with such an unyielding and inflexible character that it is impossible for it to evolve, change, or adapt to modern civilization and human rights standards. He also left Islam with specific penal codes in the Quran that promote crimes such as suppressing, dehumanizing, and subjugating women, as well as providing the legal platform for pedophiles or those who want to legally marry a girl under 10 years old.
Marriage has dire life-long consequences—often completely halting or crippling a girl’s ability to realize a wide range of human rights. Leaving school early both contributes to, and results from, marrying young. Other impacts include marital rape, heightened risk of domestic violence, poor access to decent work, exploitation doing unpaid labor, risk of HIV transmission, and a range of health problems due to early childbearing.
At present, unprecedented attention is being paid to child marriage globally. But change is often incremental, and promises do not always lead to effective action. International donors, United Nations agencies, and civil society groups, including Girls Not Brides, a coalition of more than 500 organizations worldwide, have also rallied behind the cause. The challenges are formidable. Child marriage—fueled by poverty and deeply rooted norms that undervalue and discriminate against girls—will not disappear if the concerted attention it now enjoys subsides in favor of the next hot-button issue.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals include eliminating child marriage as a key target by 2030 for advancing gender equality. Meeting this target requires a combination of approaches that have proved difficult to achieve for other women’s rights issues: a commitment of political will and resources over many years; willingness to acknowledge adolescent girls’ sexuality and empower them with information and choices; and true coordination across various sectors, including education, health, justice, and economic development.
The main causes of child marriage vary across regions and communities but often center around control over girls’ sexuality. In some countries, girls felt forced to marry after becoming pregnant. In other countries, parents hasten a daughter’s marriage to avoid the risk that she will be sexually harassed, romantically involved, or simply perceived as romantically involved, prior to marriage.
A common thread is that most girls—economically dependent, with little autonomy or support, and pressured by social norms—feel they had no choice but to comply with their parents’ wishes.
Discriminatory gender norms in many places, including traditions that dictate that a girl live with her husband’s family, while a boy remains with and financially supports his parents, contributes to perceptions that daughters are an economic burden while sons are a long-term investment.
Poor access to quality education is another contributing factor. When schools are too far away, too expensive, or the journey too dangerous, families often pull out their girls or they drop out on their own and are subsequently much more likely to be married off.
Even when schools are accessible, teacher absenteeism and poor quality education can mean that neither girls nor their parents feel it is worth the time or expense. Girls may also be kept out of school because they are expected to work instead—either in the home, or sometimes as paid labor from young ages. These same drawbacks, combined with lack of support from school administrators or from husbands and in-laws, often prevent married girls from continuing their education.
Many girls and their families cite poverty and dowry as another factor for marriage. The stress of another mouth to feed hastens some parents’ decisions to marry off their daughters early. In Bangladesh, where a girl’s parents pay dowry to the groom, the younger the girl, the lower the dowry—meaning that some poor families believe that if they don’t marry their daughters early they will not be able to marry them at all. In contrast, in South Sudan, the girl’s family will receive dowry from the groom, either in the form of cattle, an important economic asset, or money.
Many girls have miserably little access to sexual and reproductive health information and services—whether on how one gets pregnant, reliable contraception methods, protection against sexually transmitted infections, prenatal services, or emergency obstetric care.
As a result, child marriage is closely linked to early—and risky—childbearing. The consequences can be fatal: complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the second-leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19 globally. In other cases, the stress of delivery in physically immature bodies can cause obstetric fistulas, a tear between a girl’s vagina and rectum that results in constant leaking of urine and feces. Girls suffering this condition are often ostracized and abandoned by their families and communities.
74 percent of new HIV infections among African adolescents are in girls, many of them in the context of marriage where limited agency in the relationship and pressure to have children contribute to lack of condom use.
Domestic violence is another risk of marriage, perpetrated by a girl’s husband or in-laws, including psychological, physical, and sexual violence, such as marital rape. While not all child marriages are marked by domestic violence, the risk increases when there are large age gaps between a girl and her husband.
Many countries fail to criminalize marital rape, and even when it is a crime, child brides have little ability to seek help. And in general, limited information about their rights, lack of access to services especially legal assistance and emergency shelters, discriminatory divorce, inheritance, and custody laws, and rejection from their own families, can leave many trapped in abusive marriages with no means of escape.
Armed conflict heightens girls’ risk of child marriage and other abuses. For example, forced marriage of girls is a devastating tactic of war used by Muslim groups such as Islamic State and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Yezidi girls in Iraq give harrowing accounts of being captured, separated from their families, and bought and sold into sexual slavery. One young woman who escaped described being taken to a wedding hall with 60 girls and women where ISIS fighters told them to “forget about your relatives, from now on you will marry us, bear our children.”
Environmental factors also play a role. Poor families living in areas at high risk of natural disaster, including as a result of climate change, such as in Bangladesh, have cited the resulting insecurity as a factor pushing them to marry their daughters early. For example, flooding of crops or the loss of land can deepen a family’s poverty, and parents said they felt pressure to hasten a young daughter’s marriage in the wake of a natural disaster or in anticipation of one.
While the harms caused by child marriage are grim, the benefits of ending the practice are transformative and far-reaching. Tackling child marriage is a strategic way to advance women’s rights and empowerment in several areas, ranging from health, education, work, freedom from violence, and participation in public life.
But child marriage is complex and varies widely around the world. Governments committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals target of ending child marriage by 2030 will need to employ a holistic, comprehensive approach that is tailored to local contexts and diverse communities. And while the rate of child marriage has begun to drop in some places, it has increased in others. For example, civil society groups report a growing incidence of child marriage among Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Adopting and implementing cohesive national legal frameworks that uphold international human rights standards is key. This includes making 18 the minimum marriage age, avoiding loopholes such as exceptions for parental consent, ensuring the laws require free and full consent of both spouses, requiring proof of age before marriage licenses are issued, and imposing penalties on anyone who threatens or harms anyone who refuses to marry.
Governments should ensure these protections are not undermined by religious or customary laws and traditions, and should regularly engage with religious and community leaders.
Learning about what types of interventions work—and for whom—is key. Only some of the proliferation of interventions have been adequately monitored or evaluated to know which deserve to be replicated and expanded. In a 2013 review, the Washington DC-based International Center for Research on Women found that only 11 of 51 countries with a prevalence of child marriage greater than 25 percent had evaluated initiatives that fight child marriage.
An assessment of 23 programs out of 150 found evidence supporting the effectiveness of: 1) empowering girls with information and support networks; 2) ensuring girls’ access to quality education; 3) engaging and educating parents and community members about child marriage; 4) providing economic incentives and support to girls’ families; and 5) establishing and implementing a strong legal framework, such as a minimum age of marriage.
A particularly powerful message that communities and parents respond to is information about the harms of early childbearing. Correspondingly, access to information about reproductive and sexual health is key for adolescents to understand their bodies, promote respect and consensual conduct in relationships, and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
However, while governments have little problem promoting interventions that generally garner broad public support such as providing school supplies, many remain reluctant to introduce programs that might trigger a backlash. They avoid offering comprehensive sexuality education in schools or through other community mechanisms, and ensuring that adolescents, as well as adult women, get full information about contraception and affordable access to health services, including safe and legal abortion.
The effort to end child marriage cannot succeed without greater acceptance of adolescent girls’ sexuality and their rights to make their own informed choices about their bodies, their relationships, and their sexual activity.
Governments and donors can rally around the idea that a 12-year-old girl should be in school rather than a marriage. Countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States have been lead donors in combatting child marriage. But the challenge will be whether they can make sure child marriage interventions are not standalone efforts disconnected from other undertakings to empower women and poor communities and promote education and health.
Governments, whether as donors or as implementers, need to address some tough questions if they are going to make genuine progress. Do their education programs include special outreach to married girls? Do national plans of action on gender-based violence and “women, peace, and security” include efforts/steps to end child marriage? Do their police training programs on gender-based violence include policing methods to fight child marriage, such as prosecuting local officials who sign marriage certificates for underage girls?
Such coordination is crucial to ensuring that critical opportunities are not missed when allocating resources and programming that will be dedicated across the expansive Sustainable Development Goals agenda.
Efforts to end child marriage also mean the donors should press governments to meet their obligations under international law to eliminate the practice. Key international human rights treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. While there is growing evidence of the effectiveness of a number of community-level approaches, government cooperation, law enforcement, and national-level initiatives are key to scale and sustainability.
Too often, nongovernmental organizations and donors support innovative programs, but local government officials undermine their impact by ignoring or even facilitating child marriage (for example, by changing the age on a birth or marriage certificate in return for bribes) or local police fail to enforce laws that make child marriage a crime.
Similarly, critical opportunities are missed when government health workers cannot talk to adolescents about sexuality and contraception, or government school teachers and principals are not mandated or encouraged to reach out to girls dropping out of school to marry. Girls who married young desperately long for a better future for their daughters.
While the West debates the humanitarian problem of Syrian refugees flooding across its borders, the discussions repeatedly turn to the dangers they might pose: what if there are terrorists among them? How can we be sure? How can we save those in need of saving and still be safe ourselves?
Yet for many of these refugees, married off against their will, the terror has already begun. They are 11 and 13 and 14 years old. Some of them are pregnant. Some are already mothers at 14. Their husbands are 25 or 38 or 40. And there is no escape.
“Child marriage existed in Syria before the start of the conflict,” reports Girls Not Brides, a global partnership aimed at ending child marriage worldwide, “but the onset of war and the mass displacement of millions of refugees has led to a dramatic rise in the number of girls married as children.”
Indeed, since the start of the refugee crisis, UNICEF reports, as many as “one-third of registered marriages among Syrian refugees in Jordan between January and March 2014 involved girls under 18,” with some as young as 11.
In many cases, these marriages are set up by well-meaning parents who believe their daughters would be safer in the asylum centers if married and so, less likely to be approached sexually by strange men. In other instances, the daughters are sold off by parents who can no longer afford to keep them, or given in marriage to men already planning to leave Syria in the hopes that, once the couple arrives in the West, the parents can then legally join them.
But girls married in their early teens and younger face dark futures, according to Girls Not Brides. They are more likely to live in poverty, often are physically and emotionally abused, are at higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases, and are vulnerable to complications during childbirth – some of them fatal.
The plight of refugee child brides, which some authorities now call a crisis, first came to light in October last year, when 14-year old Fatema Alkasem vanished from a refugee center in the Netherlands along with her husband. She was nine months pregnant at the time.
Alkasem’s disappearance led to an emergency session of Parliament, and the ratification of a long-delayed bill that would automatically dissolve the marriage of a minor, even if performed legally in the country where the nuptials took place. Under the revised law, the husbands of minors who continue living with their wives could be prosecuted for rape and deported. Where needed, the wives would receive special medical and psychological care and, wherever possible, placed in Dutch foster homes.
The impact of the case reached far beyond the Netherlands, where an average of three child brides arrives each week. With 15 million girls worldwide forced into marriage every year, and with child marriages among Syrian refugees skyrocketing, the problem of protecting these girls is now a global one.
But while the Netherlands has taken an aggressive stance to protect these young brides, who are often sexually abused, other countries are more circumspect, even as the crisis deepens. In Norway, for instance, officials determined in December that 61 underage migrants were already married when they arrived (including one 11-year-old girl). But it was the publicized tale of a 14-year-old girl arriving with her 18-month-old child and 23-year-old husband, also in December, that ignited public outcry and prompted new focus by the government on the issue. Police sought to prosecute the case on criminal grounds, noting that Norway’s age of consent for sexual relations is 16. Yet others, such as feminist activist Unni Wikan, argued to the contrary, that Norway “might have to accept that underage refugees are married and have children.” At this writing, the debate is still ongoing.
Opinions are also mixed in Denmark, where a January report of the country’s asylum system revealed that 27 underage girls were married, including two 14-year-olds, one of whom was pregnant. Speaking to newspaper Metroexpress, conservative party spokesman Naser Khadir minced no words: “It’s called pedophilia when a man gets a 14-year-old pregnant,” he said. “We can give asylum to the 14-year-old, but we should kick the grown man out.” The husband in this case is said to be 24.
In the interim, asylum-seekers under the age of 15 – Denmark’s legal age of consent – are to be separated from their spouses and their cases reviewed by immigration officials.
But here, too, some believe that it is better to recognize such marriages. Prominent Danish imam Oussama El Saadi of Aarhus told Metroexpress that these marriages are “part of the culture” of the refugees, and so should be looked at “differently,” according to the Copenhagen Post.
Whatever one thinks of such reasoning, there is one urgent argument to support the idea that Europe should recognize these marriages, or at least find alternatives to simply rejecting them: the risk these girls face of becoming the targets of honor killings, murdered by their estranged husbands or even their own parents. A young woman who has been married – and especially one who has given birth – is no longer seen as “pure” in strict Islamic culture, thereby sullying her family’s reputation. The only recourse, in far too many Muslim families, is to cleanse the family through her blood – or murder. Even if she were to be spared such a fate, a Muslim man would be unlikely to marry her in future.
These are concerns European governments must consider in helping these young women.
In the Netherlands, officials already are taking the threat of honor killings seriously. In an e-mail, Parliamentarian Aatje Kuiken, a member of the Dutch labor party (PvdA) who was instrumental in changing the minority marriage laws, said that special teams have been set up to focus on the issue, and give the girls extra protection where needed. Hopefully, other countries will swiftly follow suit.
In Norway, however, officials are taking a different approach: providing classes for migrant men on the appropriate treatment of women. Such courses in European codes of behavior and ideas about sexuality and sexual norms, according to the New York Times, establish “a simple rule that all asylum seekers need to learn and follow: ‘to force someone into sex is not permitted in Norway, even when you are married to that person.’”
Such classes currently are voluntary, suggesting that those men who most need them, those more inclined to insist on the social norms of their home countries, and who firmly maintain that their wives are their property, are actually the most unlikely to enroll. Still, the initiative offers hope and could provide a model for other states and the possibility of long-term progress – if not to change the lives of these young child brides, perhaps, one day, to change their daughters’.