Child marriage is deeply harmful: it deprives girls of education, exposes them and their babies to serious health risks from early pregnancy sink their families deeper into poverty and raise the risk that they will face domestic violence.
Under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, countries around the world in 2016 set 2030 as a target year for ending all child marriage. Many countries are reforming their laws and developing plans for achieving this goal.
USA — 49 states to go (and counting)
Child marriage is surprisingly common in the US. Over 167,000 children married in 38 states alone from 2000 to 2010. Most US states set the minimum age at 18. But except for Delaware, all still allow exceptions, most of which are very broad — for example with parental permission, or for pregnancy. In 23 states, children of any age can marry under some circumstances. Countries like Afghanistan, Honduras, and Malawi have tougher child marriage laws than many US states. Several US states — including Florida, New York, Texas, and Virginia — recently narrowed the circumstances under which children can marry, but still permit some child marriages.
On March 23 2018, Governor Rick Scott signed a bill to limit child marriage in Florida, but which still allowed for marriage with parental consent in some circumstances. From 2001 to 2015, over 16,000 children under the age of 18 married in Florida, the second highest rate in the US for that period.
In New York State Human Rights Watch launched a campaign to raise the legal marrying age from 14 to 17. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in June 2017 that will dramatically reduce the circumstances under which children can marry.
As recently as September this year, Pauline Latham, a Conservative MP, introduced a bill to ban marriage before the age of 18 in England and Wales. In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, children aged 16 and 17 can marry with their parents’ permission. In Scotland, the minimum age of marriage is 16, with no parental permission required.
In allowing some children to marry the UK is out of step with the international standards it claims to support.
In 2014, the UK government hosted the high-profile Girl Summit, designed to boost — and pledging UK leadership for — global efforts to end child marriage and female genital mutilation. But in the years since, the UK government not only failed to ban child marriage at home — it actually blocked an earlier effort to do so.
Hypocrisy has consequences. In 2017 Bangladesh re-legalized child marriage, and government officials there repeatedly cited the fact that child marriage is legal in the UK as justification. Other countries failing to enforce bans on child marriage have also cited the UK law to defend themselves. When key donors like the UK ignore their own problem at home, the SDG goal seems impossible.
Also this year, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia said he was committed to ending child marriage.
It was a bold statement in a country in which child marriage is widespread. According to UNICEF, 14 percent of girls in Indonesia are married before age 18, and one percent marry before age 15. The 1974 Marriage Law permits women and men to marry at 21 but allows girls to marry at 16 and men to marry at 19 with parental permission.
When the news broke in July 2018 that a 41-year-old man from Kelantan, Indonesia, had married an 11-year-old girl, alarm bells went off in Malaysia’s newly elected government as well as among nongovernmental groups. The Kelantan state police started an investigation, and activists stepped up calls to legislate a minimum marriage age of 18, with no exceptions.
But some politicians saw the issue differently. Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, the deputy head of government in Kelantan state, which is ruled by the opposition Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), said child marriage should not be “sensationalized” and does not violate religious principles.
“The issue of zina [sex outside marriage], children born out of wedlock, gays and lesbians, are bigger issues for the country.” — Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah
Not only do Mohd Amar’s comments belittle girls’ rights, but they also reinforce homophobic views.
A proposed revision of Japan’s Civil Code would set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both women and men. At present, people must be 20 years old to marry without parental permission; with parental permission, men can marry from 18, and girls can marry as young as 16. If passed, the law, which the government supports, would take effect in 2022.
This step is long overdue. Different marriage ages for women versus men violate Japan’s obligations under international human rights law not to discriminate.
Japan has a crucial role to play in the effort to end child marriage globally. The Japanese government is a major contributor to international development assistance and is active in many countries where child marriage is a serious problem. Of the 40 countries that, according to UNICEF, in 2017 had the highest rates of child marriage, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) works in 29 of them, across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, including hotspots for child marriage like Niger, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, and India.
By ending child marriage at home, Japan makes itself a more credible partner in the global fight to end child marriage. The Japanese government should build on the new law by taking a more active role in the global effort to end child marriage, and by supporting reform in the many countries where far too many girls are getting married.
You can read these pieces in full, and more Human Rights Watch reporting on child marriage here: https://www.hrw.org/topic/womens-rights/child-marriage