Prioritizing the Linkages Between Sustainable Development Goals to Eradicate Child Marriage

Carnegie Ethics Online Monthly Column

August 8, 2019

CREDIT: UNDP (CC)

The Intersectional Nature of the Sustainable Development Goals

Since the inception of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), dramatic progress has been made in the reduction of poverty, treatment of disease, dissemination of vaccines, elimination of hunger, and other targets areas. Too frequently though, the programs and initiatives that seek to fulfill a particular goal are viewed and implemented in isolation. Indeed, funding by governments, multilateral institutions, and international donors for specific goals is far too often placed into individual silos that fail to recognize the interconnected nature of global challenges. This tendency misses critical opportunities to address multiple goals simultaneously while creating better practical and academic understandings of the linkages amongst social, economic, political, cultural, religious, and geographical drivers of current conditions. This sundering of interrelated crises and the objectives identified to overcome them further prevents the actualization of systemic change. As the world is unlikely to meet the ambitious goals set forth in the Sustainable Development Agenda by 2030, a renewed focus on multifaceted approaches could hasten the current flagging pace.

One issue, in particular, illuminates the intersectional nature of the SDGs—that of child marriage. Child marriage—highlighted in SDG 5, which aims to create gender equality—overlaps directly with at least seven other goals and indirectly with an additional nine. Child marriage both undermines the achievement of the SDGs and perpetuates the challenges they seek to address. It is both a cause and consequence of the other societal ills outlined in the SDGs. Specifically, child marriage is most often associated with poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2), lack of access to/inadequate health care (SDG 3), lack of access to education (SDG 4), economic disenfranchisement and marginalization (SDG 8), economic inequality (SDG 10), as well as sexual and conflict-related violence and lack of access to justice (SDG 16). Since the launch of the goals, the rate of child marriage has declined, but progress on its elimination could be accelerated by taking a holistic approach towards programming. This approach should address the drivers—as well as the deleterious effects—of child marriage, while concurrently responding to multiple priorities enumerated in the SDGs.

Overview of Child Marriage

Child marriage is recognized as a human rights violation under international law and a form of child abuse because it adversely affects girls' and women's rights to consensual marriage, education, equality, economic opportunity, health care, movement, non-discrimination, and freedom from fear, violence, and exploitation. These rights are explicitly enumerated under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and other international legal instruments. Decades of advocacy culminated in the United Nations Human Rights Council adopting its first substantive resolution distinguishing child/forced marriage as a human rights abuse in 2015. The international community further demonstrated its commitment to eliminating child marriage by 2030 vis-à-vis the UN SDGs.

Worldwide, around 12 million girls endure child marriage every year, often forced or coerced; 650 million girls and women alive today were child brides. At current rates, another 150 million girls will become child brides before 2030. Child marriage frequently leads to adolescent pregnancy and childbirth, which pose dramatic health risks due to girls' biological immaturity—indeed, pregnancy is the leading cause of death of girls aged 15-19 worldwide. Survivors often grapple with pre-birth complications, fistulas, sexually transmitted diseases, stillbirth, and other physical ramifications inflicted upon themselves and their children.

Babies born to child brides have higher susceptibility to low birth weight, malnutrition, failure to thrive, and physical and cognitive underdevelopment, which can undermine their educational and economic prospects; thus leading to poverty and more child marriage. To break this cycle, efforts must be undertaken to not only prevent child marriage, but also to provide assistance to existing child brides and their children grappling with these onerous challenges—all of which dovetail into many SDGs.

Child Marriage in Conflict Zones and Fragile States

In order to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls by 2030, the specific circumstances of women and girls in fragile, conflict, and post-conflict states must be specifically addressed. In these states, conflict and insecurity breed permissive cultural attitudes towards violence against women and subvert laws and norms about women's and girls' societal value. SDG 5 seeks to end violence and discrimination against women and girls, but also to provide them with equal access to education, health care, economic opportunity, political participation, and gender parity. To achieve this in countries in and transitioning out of conflict, women must be empowered in every facet of life.

Child marriage in conflict zones and fragile states demonstrates a particularly potent environment in which policymakers, governments, and donors can utilize a multifaceted, intersectional approach for programming to address diverse societal ills. Girls are increasingly vulnerable to child marriage in these situations based on: (1) increased militarization—wherein combatants forcibly take a child bride, or a daughter is involuntarily entered into marriage based on familial perceptions that such arrangement can heighten protection; (2) weak state institutions—which, if stronger, would offer education, protection, and other society-enhancing services; (3) subversion of the rule of law—where laws and/or their enforcement are unable to reach far-flung constituencies to adequately prevent and/or punish child marriage; (4) decreased educational and economic opportunity—due to insecurity, distance, crumbling/lacking infrastructure, or simply the shuttering of educational centers and workplaces, the existence of which would ordinarily shield girls from child marriage; and (5) displacement and disrupted community relationships—which can give rise to a breakdown of societal norms, practices, and protections. These factors, in tandem with limited access to basic resources and an overall culture of insecurity, can serve to deprioritize female protection and empowerment mores, resulting in a subversion of human rights generally, and a proliferation of child marriage specifically.

Failure to draw linkages between child marriage, domestic violence, poverty, and violent societies—i.e. the notion that violence begets violence, and thus creates cyclical subjugation and marginalization of women and girls—too often inhibits the creation and execution of multi-pronged security and development initiatives. These would address both causes and effects of violence, as well as protect and empower those disproportionately affected by violence—women and girls.

Child Marriage in Afghanistan

Initiatives surrounding SDG 5 recognize that violence against women can happen anywhere, and occurs most frequently in war zones. The situation in Afghanistan illuminates the mélange of gender-based violence that occurs during active hostilities. The gender inequality, domestic violence, and discrimination that skyrocketed throughout decades of conflict and Taliban rule has led to Afghanistan consistently being ranked as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. A staggering 90 percent of Afghan girls and women are subject to gender-based violence during the course of their lives—often beginning at a very young age.

In Afghanistan, well over half of all women are married before the age of 18, and over 40 percent of child marriages occur with girls between the ages of 10 and 13. Afghan law, however, prohibits marriage before 16 for girls and 18 for boys, although a court or girl's father may consent to her marriage at 15. Nonetheless, judges and tribal leaders often lack sufficient legal and religious training to enforce the laws or combat supposed justifications that Shari'a allows for the practice of child marriage, which it decidedly does not. Furthermore, the dramatic uptick in violence and resurgence of the Taliban since the 2014 U.S. troop withdrawal has caused backsliding in women's and girls' freedoms and led to deprioritized enforcement of legal reforms intended to facilitate their empowerment and protection.

Deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes and attendant transactional perspectives towards marriage often give rise to the deployment of child marriage as a bartering mechanism in Afghanistan, frequently before the bride hits puberty. For instance, the practice of badal results in the exchange of daughters between two families for marriage, while ba'ad involves marrying off a girl to pay a debt, bring peace, or serve as recompense for murder, sexual assault, or other perceived wrongs committed by one family or community against another.

In addition to poverty and insecurity, Afghanistan's extremely high rates of illiteracy, gender discrimination, and lack of access to health care and education are key drivers of child marriage. Poor families, particularly in rural areas, frequently sell their daughters in marriage to wealthier families in exchange for large dowries, often to men who are significantly older and have additional wives. The practice of child engagement, wherein two families commit a son and daughter to each other, remains rampant. Rates of child marriage increase dramatically in the country's internally displaced persons and refugee returnee camps, where financial hardship, illiteracy, and lack of educational and economic opportunities are exacerbated.

Child brides are most often unwittingly thrust into arranged marriages without any consultation or their consent. The power dynamics of these marriages, particularly with significant age disparity, render girls vulnerable to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse from their husbands and in-laws. Girls entered into a marriage with a man two- to three-times older than them are more susceptible to premature death. In order to escape these challenges and threats, many brides run away from home, subjecting themselves to further violence from their families, isolation, homelessness, and even imprisonment for committing “moral crimes.” Others tragically choose suicide, often by self-immolation.

Despite this bleak picture, since the 2001 NATO-led intervention, Afghan women and girls have made phenomenal gains compared to the repressive lifestyle they endured under the brutal Taliban reign. Despite overwhelming challenges, girls have gone back to school; women are working as government ministers, lawyers, doctors, and engineers; and a new generation is being raised in a country that recognizes women's rights as human rights—particularly those being raised in urban centers.

Furthermore, the Afghan government has made additional strides to protect girls, including the development of the National Action Plan to Eliminate Early and Child Marriage. This program aims to eliminate marriage before 18 and provide the means for child brides to obtain a divorce. The Ministry of Women's Affairs has also started initiatives to regulate marriage registration. The 2004 Afghan Constitution enshrines gender equality, furthered by subsequently enacted legislation and executive decrees, such as the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (2009) and the Law on the Prohibition and Prevention of Harassment Against Women and Children (2018). These laws are helping to establish the legal space for the unimpeded exercise of women's rights and their participation throughout government and society.

Successful enforcement of these laws and implementation of the National Action Plan remain tenuous, however, as the Taliban, Islamic State, and other extremist elements continue to exert increasing territorial and population control. These developments risk atrophying the ability of women and girls to exercise the freedoms they have attained since 2001. However, the current peace talks underway in Doha serve as an important reminder that girls must be prevented from engaging in child marriage, so that they can participate meaningfully in the peacebuilding, state-building, and governance processes of Afghanistan moving forward.

Indeed, for Afghanistan's peace and security to be sustainable, women's meaningful participation must occur at the earliest inception of peace negotiations, so that they can articulate their specific perspectives, needs, and demands, and to firmly establish their role in the country's future and advance its legal framework. This will help shift entrenched, harmful cultural attitudes and norms, such as those promoting child marriage and relegating women to the home. Just as importantly, women must be incorporated into post-conflict governance structures to ensure that their rights are promoted and enforced, especially in territories where extremists and local customs have subverted the status of women. This can help reify gender inclusion in all aspects of society, institutionalize the elements of a thriving democracy, and ensure a multifaceted approach towards achieving the SDGs.

Conclusion

Women's full participation in decision-making and society is imperative to eliminating gender inequality, discrimination, violence, and poverty, and attaining a whole host of the objectives outlined in the SDGs. Restricting child marriage is a critical first step to ensuring that girls can continue their education, freely exercise their rights, and effectively participate in political, social, and economic life. Governments must both enact and enforce appropriate laws, devoid of discriminatory legal loopholes, to unleash the cultural change necessary to achieve the gender equality goal of the UN's Sustainable Development Agenda. However, governments, multilateral institutions, and international donors must avoid viewing the challenge of child marriage with tunnel vision and instead rethink the conceptual framework through which they organize programming to address both the root causes and consequences of the practice.

States that have historically resisted attempts to curb child marriage could be swayed by clear articulations of the adverse impact child marriage has on the economy, security, and overall development. Within individual countries, governments must take a cross-ministry approach to eradicating the foundational laws, policies, and norms that give rise to gender inequality and poverty. International institutions and donors can also incentivize and condition development assistance on the implementation of initiatives that take a holistic, intersectional approach towards achieving the SDGs. Moreover, grassroots approaches are needed to change hearts and minds at the community level and to articulate that women's rights are human rights and the ways in which gender equality can benefit the community. This can give rise to movement-building and advocacy for and with women and girls to change laws, policies, and practices that previously served to harm them.

In the same way that intersectionality rejects viewing power structures in isolation from others, one issue impacting young women and girls cannot be viewed without deference to all of them. Deleterious imposing forces—social, economic, political, cultural, and religious—constantly undermine the ability for women and girls to assert themselves and attain parity with their male counterparts. Child protection, including from child marriage, should be the international community's single highest priority in order to achieve the totality of the SDGs. Interventions to prevent, protect, and support children in all facets of their lives are imperative to jettison the chains anchoring generation after generation to a lifetime of poverty, disease, and abuse. If we do not empower children now and address the drivers and consequences of our global crises, we will perpetuate the conditions that gave rise to the dire need to create the SDGs in the first place.

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