News & Reports

Pandemic May Reverse a Quarter Century of Arab-World Progress on Child Marriage

Editor’s note: The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down many girls’ already limited access to education, especially if they are internally displaced or refugees. In a new “Girls at Risk” series, Al-Fanar Media is focusing on factors that keep girls out of school. Typically, Al-Fanar Media focuses on Arab higher education, but we believe it is also important sometimes to turn our attention to the barriers that prevent the disadvantaged from ever reaching universities. All of the articles in the Girls at Risk series can be found here.

In the Middle East and North Africa, 700,000 girls marry each year before their 18th birthday, according to the United Nations, adding to the 40 million women already wed as children in the region.

Globally, one in five girls marry before age 18. Still, over the past 25 years, countries around the world, including some in the Arab region, have made significant progress in bringing down those rates.

But a “shadow pandemic” of violence and discrimination against girls and women is threatening those gains, with researchers, child advocates, and aid workers estimating that the impacts of the coronavirus will add 13 million more child brides worldwide, leading to 10 million more girls dropping out of secondary school.

“The problem is, in this crisis, money is being directed to health interventions rather than to prioritize education—which should be the priority,” says Anna Cristina D’Addio, a senior policy analyst for Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring report. “And it is very likely that without the right interventions now, there will be some negative effects regarding child marriage—that the progress can be halted or reversed.”

For decades, child marriage has been widely viewed as a human rights violation, with various international agreements over the years attempting to eliminate the practice. (See this reference: “International Agreements Have Tried to Eliminate Child Marriage Over the Decades.”) World leaders, including those in Arab countries, signed those agreements, child advocates say, because they realized the devastating lifelong consequences that early marriage has for girls. Child marriage halts their education, exposes them to much greater risks of sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer and obstetric fistulas, and increases their risks of becoming isolated and suffering from domestic violence and damage to their mental health.

Dangers of Adolescent Pregnancy

Meanwhile, early marriage thrusts motherhood on girls who aren’t ready for it emotionally or physically. Adolescent pregnancy is the leading cause of death among adolescent girls globally, and 90 percent of births among adolescent girls occur within child marriage, says Girls Not Brides, an organization that advocates against child marriage. Depending on their age, teenage girls are two to seven times more likely to die of complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s. Neonatal mortality rates are 73 percent higher for infants born to mothers under 20 years of age than for those born to older mothers, according to the World Health Organization.

For refugee girls and women lacking resources, healthcare and sometimes a stable family or community, the situation can be particularly dire. These young girls, particularly refugees, are often abandoned after they get pregnant, even if they are married, aid workers say. This is especially true if they are married in Nikah ‘urfi—traditional, religious marriages that make it easy for husbands to divorce them. These brides are left alone, destitute and shamed.

“The problem is, in this crisis, money is being directed to health interventions rather than to prioritize education—which should be the priority.”

Anna Cristina D’Addio
 A senior policy analyst for Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring report

Along with perpetuating poverty and lack of education, some economists have also started to realize that child marriage hurts economic growth.

Unicef estimates that child marriage costs economies at least 1.7 percent of gross domestic product. Increasing the share of women completing secondary education by 1 percent could increase economic growth by 0.3 percent, increasing gross national income by 10 percent in a decade, said a World Bank study cited by the Brookings Institution. In the Middle East and North Africa, educating girls and putting them to work could add as much as  $3.1 trillion to regional wealth, according to the World Bank.

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But to eradicate the practice, advocates say it’s critical that countries adopt a legal marriage age of at least 18—and enforce it.

So far, of the 22 countries of the Arab League plus Turkey, all but eight have set the legal minimum age of marriage for females at 18 or above. (See the graphic below.) At the same time, not one single country has an absolute age of 18 or above. All grant exceptions for girls with a guardian’s consent or a court’s approval, effectively nullifying the minimum age, child advocates say.

And while most have signed various international agreements—including the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women—committing to end the practice, a majority have expressed official reservations about Article 16 of that convention, which guarantees equal rights regarding marriage and family relations, because of the application of Sharia law.

“In many countries … there may be other practices that override the law,” said D’Addio, of the Global Education Monitoring Report. “We know, for example, that there is plenty of legislation and rules concerning child marriage that say it is discriminatory. … But then there are layers (of law) especially in the Arab world which undermine these. … For example, the Sharia determines some of the rules that give more power to men. … (It’s) another framework that gives power to families to make it possible to marry their daughters before the legal age.”

Click the graphic for more information about child marriage laws in Arab countries.

Progress in Sub-Saharan Africa

Still, many like D’Addio recognize there have been important gains regarding child marriage worldwide. Globally, the practice has declined by about 25 percent from 1990 to 2015. The least progress was made in sub-Saharan Africa, where the rate of early marriage is still high: About 37 percent of all girls marry before the age of 18, while 15 percent do so before the age of 15.

The MENA region, meanwhile, with rates of around 33 percent in 1990, has also improved. By 2015, one out of every five girls married before the age of 18 and one out of every 25 did so before the age of 15, according to Unicef. Despite those gains, the Brookings Institution noted the trend is rising, largely due to conflicts in the Mashriq, Yemen, and Libya.

Still, in the region, some countries have made significant reductions: For example, in Oman, the rate dropped from more than 50 percent in 1990 to less than 5 percent in 2015, according to Unicef.

Tunisia ranks best among all Arab countries, at 2 percent. At the other end of the spectrum among Arab League countries are Mauritania, Somalia and Sudan, with some of the highest rates of child marriages in the world: In Somalia, for example, 45 percent of females marry before the age of 18. None of these three countries has shown much improvement. (See a graphic at the bottom of this article.)

Some child advocates say that not enforcing the marriage age is the same as not enforcing compulsory education laws, which violates girls’ legal rights. In the region, more than half of all countries mandate a minimum of nine years of schooling, while obligating the state to provide at least 12. (See graphic.)

“At the end of the day, the critical link is education because child marriage is a barrier to the proper exercise of the right to education,” said D’Addio. “The state is the duty bearer of the right to education and so it means that if you have laws that allow a girl or a boy to marry early, you are opening the way to exclusionary practices, and to violating those rights of girls. So that’s, that’s really why these two things go together.”


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