Child marriage is not a new phenomenon. Reports show that it is quite common in regions like Africa, Asia and South America. Child marriage is also very ingrained in customs, traditions and religion because it has been practised from generations to generations. This strong affiliation of child marriage with institutions of traditions and religion has made it a tenacious societal problem with very bright future prospects. Sadly, the girl-child remains the one with the higher risk of being exposed, exploited and violated within the confines of child marriage.
Child marriage is when a child is forcefully given away in marriage before his or her age of consent. While this age may vary from place to place, the common age of consent is usually 18 years. Alarmingly, female children who can be as young as 12 or less are increasingly considered more suitable as “prospective brides-to-be”. While child marriage may also be promoted by factors such as poverty, conflict and teenage pregnancies, it still does not favor the cause of children. The negative issues that stem out it are still the same and may worsen if the practice is not stopped. The fact that child marriage violates some of the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that pertain to children has made it a culprit in the rise of the violation of Children’s Rights. For instance, child marriage increases health challenges for children. Asides the fact that children are likely to be raped on their first copulation acts within the marriage, several reproductive challenges trail them as they grow into their formative years and beyond, including the dangers of being infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Sadly, these children never get qualitative health care services on time and even when they do, the damage is usually done and irreparable.
Child marriage is equally the motivating factor for the rise of pedophilia in our societies. Pedophiles are people who have a strong sexual attraction for children and may molest children if given the opportunity. Child marriage simply provides a formal platform for pedophiles to bring their fantasies to life at the expense of innocent children. It is only a pedophile who will accept the hands of a young girl in marriage and make every necessary arrangement to legalize it.
Parents are critical stakeholders in the war against child marriages. When a parent is knowledgeable, emboldened and resolute about achieving positive outcomes for his or her child irrespective of difficulties, it is likely that the child’s interests and rights will be protected. Similarly, parents are equally major contributors to the rise of child marriage, globally. Even though culture, religion, illiteracy, poverty and weak law enforcement are typically blamed as catalysts for increased child marriage in the society, parents play a pivotal role to aid these factors and the practice of child marriage.
A case in point is the reluctance of parents to plan their families even when they know that they have limited resources to cater for them. When parents refuse to plan their families and continue to give birth to children that they cannot provide for, they are simply preparing those children for lives of woes. A good instance is child marriage. Having unplanned children in high numbers may increase poverty levels in families. Poverty in this regard is evident in the inability of parents to provide food, education, housing, clothing and security for their children, forcing these children to seek these things elsewhere at a high price.
Parents can also be complicit in the practice of child marriage when they withhold sex education from their children. Sex education not only protects children from child molesters but helps children make timely and reasonable decisions about their bodies and sex matters. Children who are given relevant, age-appropriate and timely sex education are better informed on issues of sex and will most likely, not increase the statistics of teenage pregnancies. The lower the occurrences of teenage pregnancies, the lower the chances that children will be given off in child marriage as a remedy.
Parents are also disturbingly involved in perpetuating harmful cultural and religious practices. When parents are more concerned about the preservation of age-long and harmful traditions, customs and religious practices such as child marriage at the expense of their children’s well-being and safety, then such parents have become security threats to their children. When a parent is more concerned about the negative perception of society that is committed to harmful cultural and religious practices than the promotion of his or her child’s interests and rights, then such parent is quite unfit to be called a “parent”.
Sadly, one very common cause of child marriage which is subtle yet glaring and is linked with parental consent is what is called “Parental Pimping”. This occurs when parents actively prostitute their children or give their approval to illicit sexual relationships between their children who are below the age of consent and adults, who supposedly can provide for the needs of these parents through their children. It is important to note that children in this kind of relationship are not necessarily married but will likely co-habit with the adults in question, giving rise to a form of child marriage that is not formalized yet exhibits all its traits.
Parenting is a call of providence. It involves being committed to the well-being, safety, rights and interests of children, biological or not. While parents are the very reason child marriage is sky-rocketing out of proportion due to their active or passive support for the practice, they can also be the needed agents of change to stymie it. What then is to be done? Parents should blatantly refuse to support or consent to child marriage and actively speak out against the practice in their communities. Voices are such potent weapons of change when they are many, focused and amplified. These Voices are also critical to reducing the incidences of children being in non-formalized sexual relationships with adults and can be a good basis for community interventions against child marriage. The results may not be immediate as such parents may be stigmatized for their choices and actions to stand against deep-seated but harmful cultural and religious practices (and they will be). However, the options of media support, legal actions and even relocation are available for parents who are willing to stand up to end the victimization of children through child marriage.
Parents who are challenged by issues of poverty should seek other sources of respite instead of that of child marriage. For instance, parents can take advantage of the opportunity of Free Education in public schools for their children, which reduces the cost of education, significantly. Family planning also, is a foundational way of eliminating child marriage. Parents should actively seek out this service and ask questions. Family Planning Services are available at Family Planning Centers and hospitals. Parents should not forget to make Sex Education a priority for their children. Information on Sex Education can be solicited for at schools, hospitals and relevant Non-Governmental Organisations, among others.
Child marriage is a fundamental violation of several Children’s Rights. It has been aided by parents but it ends now.
CEO, Shield of Innocence Initiative
Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria.