With the release of their report, Dads Too Soon, Care began a campaign to illuminate the challenges facing child grooms. UNICEF estimates that approximately 156 million men were married as children. Let’s be clear: child marriage is a violation of human rights whether the child is a boy or a girl. 156 million is exactly 156 million too many.
When a boy marries, typically he marries a girl child. These children are neither physically nor emotionally ready to enter an adult union. Yet when a girl marries, typically she marries an adult man. Wed to an adult, she is no longer raised by her parents. Instead, her husband raises her to be the wife he wants. She stops attending school and loses access to social and health resources. Domestic violence and marital rape become her norm. Her agency and autonomy disappear on her wedding day, never to return.
When a boy faces fatherhood in childhood, he is expected to provide for his family. This adult task should not be placed on the shoulders of a child. Yet when a girl faces motherhood in childhood, she is responsible for raising a child while a child herself. Child mothers, who are not emotionally prepared for motherhood, pass their own marginalization onto their children. This is if she survives: pregnancy and childbirth remain the leading cause of death of adolescent girls in lower income countries. Pregnant girls are also higher risk for obstetric fistula, anemia, malnutrition and malaria.
Care rightfully reminds us that boy children suffer under the imposition of an adult institution. Yes, and the marriage of the girl extends beyond this imposition: her marriage embodies and perpetuates devastating gender inequality. Under the historic and present conditions of gender inequality, it is easier for people to rationalize, justify and accept the marriage of a girl because the female half of the population is still seen as on-their-way-to-marriage-and-motherhood no matter how young.
When we oppose the marriage of the girl child, we oppose gender apartheid that is reproduced when a girl leaves school to become a wife. When we work to delay marriage age, we work to give her the opportunity to develop as an individual in her own right, not according to the will of her husband. When we raise our voices against early pregnancy, we are speaking for her right to life. We must end the marriage of all children, and yet we cannot take a gender-blind approach because half of the population still isn’t seen as anything other than a bride-to-be. Let’s end child marriage. And let’s put girls first so that one day they might end up equal.