Child Marriage Factsheet

UNICEF defines child marriage as “a formal or an informal union of two persons where at least one of them is under 18 years old” (UNICEF 2014). Since children lack maturity and information, it is generally considered that child marriage is also forced marriage. This is the case even if the child in question consents to the marriage, as the child is likely to be influenced by parents, the prospective spouse, religious leaders, distant relatives, or a combination of any of these actors.The definition of forced marriage is a marriage “in which one and/or both parties have not personally expressed their full and free consent to the union” (UNICEF 2014). Since children are not old enough or mature enough to make informed decisions, they cannot give informed consent, and the marriage is therefore forced.
Introduction and background
Child marriage is an issue that is affecting young boys and girls all over the world. It is important to highlight that whilst many assume that it is only girls who experience child marriage, boys are also affected. In addition, cases of child marriage are not only limited to the global South. Although many countries have legislated against it, it is still carried out informally in both the global north and the global south.
Most people perceive child marriage as an abuse and violation of the child’s basic human rights.n many cases, formalization of the marriage involves physical and/or mental abuse.According to UNICEF: “Worldwide, more than 650 million women alive today were married as children. Every year at least 12 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18. This is 28 girls every minute. One in every five girls is married, or in union, before reaching age 18. In the least developed countries, that number doubles – 40 percent of girls are married before age 18, and 12 percent of girls are married before age 15.” (UNICEF 2014)
Legal context
A number of international legal instruments address the issue of child marriage, such as prohibiting child marriage, including the standardization of marriage consent, setting a legal age of marriage, and marriage registration. These instruments include the 1962 Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age of Marriage, and Registration of Marriage; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979); the Convention on the Rights of Child (1989); and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.
Risks and effects of child marriage
Child marriage involves several health and development risks. First and foremost there is a considerable risk to the child’s health, particularly in female children. Girls between the ages of 10 to 14 are 5 to 7 times more likely to die during childbirth and girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die (United Nations 2001). High death rates are secondary to eclampsia, postpartum hemorrhage, sepsis, HIV infection, malaria, and obstructed labor. Girls aged 10 to 15 years have small pelvises and are not ready for childbearing. Aside from the risk of death to the young mother, there are also risks of contracting or experiencing eclampsia, postpartum hemorrhage, sepsis, HIV infection, malaria, and obstructed labour, and the risk of obstetric fistula to girls aged 10 to 15 is 88% (Ascher-Walsh et al. 2010).
Childbirth in underage mothers has health implications not only for the young mother but also for the baby. There is a 35% to 55% increased risk of premature birth in mothers aged under 18, and the infant mortality rate is 60% higher when the mother is under 18. Babies who survive birth are 28% more likely to die in their first five years of life due to their mothers’ poor nutrition, physical and emotional immaturity, lack of access to social and reproductive services, higher risk of diseases, and lack of familial support.
Child Marriage in the KRI
As in many developing countries, child marriage in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is a serious issue that society has neglected for many years. The issue needs to be addressed with the cooperation of all sectors of society. Governments and NGOs legislate and campaign against it, but in many cases, child marriage occurs outside the legal framework with the blessing and assistance of the community, including tribal and religious leaders. It is therefore vital that interventions carried out by NGOs and reform activists also include non-governmental individuals and organisations.
A recent study into the number of married girls aged between 15 and 19 in the KRI found that 2755 girls (20.53%) were married compared to 9618 (23.02 %) in the south/centre of Iraq (El-Kak 2014). Whilst the percentage of child marriages in the KRI is marginally lower, over 20% of girls in the KRI were married aged 15 to 19, which represents a considerable challenge to reform activists. This is however, also only an official figure that has been registered by government agencies: by the nature of child marriage, many marriages are not officially registered, and many more take place outside the legal system and so the actual figure is most likely much higher.
Causes of Child Marriage in KRI
Two of the main reasons for child marriage in the KRI are poverty and the perceived preservation of family honour. In the poorer sectors of society, girls are often perceived as a burden on family resources as it is considered socially unacceptable for them to work. This means that girls are largely confined to the house and are therefore an extra expense. For this reason, many families marry off their daughters to shift the financial burden from themselves on to the husband’s family. This is particularly the case when it comes to disabled girls and women who are at an even higher risk. Their disability not only impacts on their everyday lives but also on their marriage options as they are also considered a burden on their prospective husbands.. When the family suspects a daughter of engaging in extramarital relationships that would tarnish the perceived honour of the family, the family might marry off the daughter to protect that honour. In less extreme cases, a girl can be married off if the family perceives her  to be overly “social,” or otherwise not to fit the stereotypical docile, submissive characteristic.  In many of these instances, the girl has little or no say in the marriage and agrees to it without informed consent. The longer a girl remains unmarried, the more potential “dishonour” that girl can bring to the family. People in traditional communities perceive an unmarried woman  in her late 30s to be unwanted, faulty, or somehow defective. For this reason, families encourage or force girls to marry early.  
Low- to middle-income families force girls into marriage from an early age because there are  very few perceived alternatives. Many girls and families believe that the only duty of a girl is to marry, start a family, raise children, and run the household. They  might believe that delaying marriage is delaying the inevitable, and that no other options exist.  In some circles of society there is considerable peer pressure on some girls to get married. Once friends and peers get married and have children, it encourages others to follow suit.
  • Ascher-Walsh, C. J., Capes, T. L., Lo, Y., Idrissa, A., Wilkinson, J., Echols, K., ... & Genadry, R. (2010). Sling procedures after repair of obstetric vesicovaginal fistula in Niamey, Niger. International urogynecology journal21(11), 1385-1390.
  • Unicef. (2001). We the Children: End-Decade Review of the Follow-Up to the World Summit for Children. New York: UNICEF.
  • El-Kak, Dr. Faisal (2014), Document Advocating Against Teenage Marriage, Beirut, Lebanon. Ending child marriage: Progress and prospects, UNICEF 2014.
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