Children’s Rights (15): What’s Wrong With Child Marriage?

Child marriage is common. In many parts of the world, a high percentage of girls get married before adulthood – boys seemed to be spared from this particular type of injustice. But why is it an injustice? Us western intellectual folk tend to assume without much consideration that it is, and that arguments in favor of the practice – often based on culture and cultural relativism – are criminally wrong. Here I want to offer a few reasons for calling it an injustice, reasons that go somewhat beyond a mere reflexive rejection.

But before I do that, some numbers:

  • Although the practice is in decline, the numbers are still very high: in the whole of the developing world, more than 1/3 of women aged 20 to 24 report that they were married or in union before they reached 18 years of age (2/3 in some countries, such as Niger). 1 in 9 are married before age 15.
  • In absolute numbers, India has most child brides (women aged 20 to 24 who were married before age 18): more than 10 million. That’s 1/6 of the world total.
  • Each year, more than 10 million children are forced into marriage.
  • The practice is indeed highly coercive. Not only on the girls who hardly ever have a say in the matter – these are often arranged marriages – but also on the parents of the girls. One indication of this is the fact that child marriage is more prevalent among the poorer sections of societies: households in the poorest quintiles are 3 to 4 times more likely to marry off their daughters than households in the richest quintiles. The rural rate is double the urban rate. It’s not unlikely that money is an incentive here.
  • The practice not only has economic causes but also cultural ones. Some families sell off their daughters as a way of settling debts; others as a means to assuage disputes and to forge communal relationships. Cultural beliefs about purity and dishonor are important drivers as well. A symptom of the cultural origins is the fact that in 50 countries the minimum legal age of marriage is lower for females than for men.

Now, apart from the coercion involved in the practice, what else is wrong with it?

  • If we don’t want to call it pedophilia, let’s at least accept that the risk of sexual abuse is a lot higher than in your typical adult marriage. Add to that the physical harm resulting from pregnancies. When girls have babies before their bodies are mature enough, they are at risk of death from hemorrhaging, obstructed labor and other complications.
  • Child brides, whether mother or not, are typically excluded from education. So countries with a high prevalence of child marriages and child mothers also tend to have low literacy and schooling rates for young women:
  • Low schooling rates for girls have of course a knock-on effect on gender equality in later life. This then becomes a vicious circle. When girls and women aren’t allowed to become educated and independently prosperous, parents are quick to conclude that the best option for their daughters is an early marriage.

More on child marriage – including some fascinating images – is here. More on children’s rights is here.

Children’s Rights (13): Minimum Age of Marriage Laws Reduce Incidence of Child Marriage

In many countries, it’s customary for girls to marry at a very young age, voluntarily or not. This practice is detrimental to the human rights of women, as I argued before.

In the developing world, more than one third of women aged 20 to 24 report that they were married or in a union by the age of 18. (source)

This practice is often legally entrenched:

In 50 countries, the minimum legal age of marriage is lower for females. (source)

However, it seems that the law can also work the other way.

Or perhaps the causation goes the other way: countries where customs are against early marriage also adopt laws stipulating a high minimum marriage age. In general, we shouldn’t be too optimistic about the power of legislation.

Children’s Rights (12): Child Soldiers, Why and How?

Why are children recruited for warfare? Why not just use adults who are likely to be more capable and reliable soldiers? There’s an interesting paper here looking at some of the reasons:

  • Children are relatively easy to abduct, subjugate, and manipulate. They are more impressionable and vulnerable to indoctrination, and their moral development is incomplete and malleable.
  • They are also seen as more loyal and less threatening to adult leadership.
  • Children, despite their a priori disadvantages in terms of fighting skills, may have a particular functional value. They may be suitable for menial logistical support of the armed group, or they may even have certain tactical advantages: they can slip through enemy lines unnoticed, making them effective spies and bomb carriers. Also, the proliferation of inexpensive, lightweight weapons has made it easier to use children as soldiers. These small arms are easy to transport and use with little training.
  • Rebel groups also make simple cost-benefit analysis: children require less food and no payment. Punishment of children is also less costly. Child soldiers are financially attractive. Rebel groups may be extremely resource-constrained and forced to recruit children.
  • The use of child soldiers can present a moral dilemma to enemies: should they kill children?
  • Rebel groups may recruit children in order to signal seriousness, commitment and ruthlessness, and thereby instill fear in the enemy.

How are child soldiers recruited? Patterns of recruitment of children vary according to the context. It’s usually a mix of punishment, promises of rewards and indoctrination.

  • The recruitment of children is facilitated when they are forced to participate in an assassination (perhaps of one of their relatives, parents or friends). The objective is to break their will. The forced killing of relatives also destroys a child’s outside options: if the child were to flee, it has no place to go to, or the community may reject the child because of what it did.
  • Armed forces will also destroy other outside options for children: schools, villages, farms etc.
  • Armed forces abuse children’s feelings of desperation and traumas resulting from previous situations of extreme violence.
  • Armed forces also abuse certain motivations of children: children may join armed forces because of the desire to take control of events, or because of the protection offered by being at the shooting end of a gun.

Children’s Rights (9): Child Soldiers

From Amnesty International:

Approximately 250,000 children under the age of 18 are thought to be fighting in conflicts around the world, and hundreds of thousands more are members of armed forces who could be sent into combat at any time. Although most child soldiers are between 15 and 18 years old, significant recruitment starts at the age of 10 and the use of even younger children has been recorded.

Around the world, children are singled out for recruitment by both armed forces and armed opposition groups, and exploited as combatants. Easily manipulated, children are sometimes coerced to commit grave atrocities, including rape and murder of civilians using assault rifles such as AK-47s and G4s. Some are forced to injure or kill members of their own families or other child soldiers. Others serve as porters, cooks, guards, messengers, spies, and sex slaves.

Children’s Rights (2): Child Labor

Child labor not only keeps children from attending school. It often harms them physically and mentally. It is therefore a double problem from the point of view of the human rights of children.

  1. It denies them the education that they need for the exercise of and struggle for their human rights. Without education the freedom of thought and opinion becomes rather academic since thought and opinion requires a certain level of education. Political participation without literacy is also quite difficult. Without education people will find it difficult to struggle against rights violations and to find meaningful work when they are adults. So child labor can have lifetime consequences for human rights.
  2. The conditions in which children have to work often lead directly to violations of their rights, such as the right to good health. Moreover the kinds of jobs children have to do are often extremely stultifying, creating feelings of insignificance and hopelessness, with disastrous consequences for their personality and future development.

Legal aspects

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in article 26, includes the right to education and hence, implicitly (not explicitly), the prohibition of child labor since the two are incompatible. Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states, rather carefully in order not to frighten away developing countries who might otherwise not have accepted the treaty:

“Children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation. Their employment in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law. States should also set age limits below which the paid employment of child labour should be prohibited and punishable by law”.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides the strongest legal language prohibiting illegal child labor but does not make child labor illegal.


The International Labor Organization estimates that 246 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently work (or about 15% of the world’s children, about 35% of children in Sub-Saharan Africa).

They work in very different industries but mostly in commercial agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, mining, parents’ business and domestic service either at home or in other homes, in factories, sweatshops, fields, tourist attractions etc. Some children work in illicit activities like the drug trade and prostitution or as soldiers. Often their situation is aggravated by child slavery, child trafficking, debt bondage and forced labor.


In Western countries, child labor has gradually died out. It was common during the industrial revolution (and before) when children as young as four were employed in factories with dangerous working conditions, but labor laws, education laws and technological progress (and some say colonialism) have caused its disappearance.

From Unicef:

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the worldwide highest share of child labourers. In the 18 countries in this region with data on child labour, 38 percent of all children between 7 and 14 years of age are engaged in work that can be considered harmful to their development. Among these children, slightly more than half (20 percent of the total) also attend school while another 18 percent are only engaged in labour. Overall, 60 percent of all children between 7 and 14 years attend school. 21 percent of all children are neither in school nor do they engage in labour. These children may, however, perform work that is not considered labour, for example household work for less than 28 hours per week… [T]he share of child labourers among girls is the same as among boys, about 38 percent. On the other hand, the area of residence is strongly associated with child labour: rural children (43 percent) work much more than urban children (25 percent).


It’s often the poverty of their parents that forces millions of young children out of school and into work. But companies obviously also have an interest in hiring children. Children earn less, are less vocal defenders of their rights, are more easily forced to accept certain “work procedures” etc. For some professions, the anatomy of children also gives them an advantage compared to adults (mining for instance). Many companies, including Western multinationals, often find the temptation too hard to resist, and the consumers engage in moral complicity when purchasing products assembled or manufactured in developing countries with child labor. Consumer boycotts of such products, however, without compensating measures such as the provision of education for the children in question or benefits to poor families, may simply result in an even worse situation when children are forced into other labor activities, often more hazardous or detrimental.

A child may sometimes consent to work if, for example, the salary is relatively attractive, but such consent may not be informed consent. Child labor may still be an undesirable situation for a child in the long run.

Economic advantages of the abolition of child labor

Child labor undermines the general economy because it lowers general labor standards and wages for all workers (adult workers often suffer from unfair competition since they normally would be paid more and are generally more vocal about their labor conditions). It may have a short-term beneficial effect on a country’s international competitiveness because it allows countries to produce at lower costs and with fewer regulations, but internally in the country it affects the general labor standards and work force.

Children’s Rights (1): Infant Mortality

Infant mortality is the number of deaths of children aged one year or younger, per 1000 live births. This gives the Infant mortality rate (IMR). The rates have significantly declined over the last centuries, mainly due to improvements in basic health care, and in all regions of the world.

However, there’s still a long way to go, especially in developing countries. In several African countries as well as in India, 1 in 10 babies die before they reach the age of 1. That’s horrendous.

Inequalities are extreme: Angola had the highest IMR in 2007: 184. And Sweden the lowest: 2.8. In a country like Bangladesh, 153,000 newborns die each year. Multiply this with the number of non-newborns death before the age of 1, and with a number of similar countries, and with a number of consecutive years, and you have an enormous massacre.

The most common causes in developing countries are pneumonia and dehydration from diarrhea. The latter cause is a real scandal given the ridiculously easy remedy: Oral Rehydration Solution, or ORS, a mixture of salts, sugar, and water. In developed countries the causes are congenital malformation, birth defects, extreme prematurity, disease, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Neglect, abuse or outright murder are also important causes.

The infant mortality rate is an indicator of state failure. As the IMR indicates the level of a country’s health, health care system or development, an extremely high IMR can corroborate the statement that a particular state is a “failed state” in the sense that it fails in its basic responsibilities to its citizens. Not surprisingly, wealthy countries – wealthy in the commonly accepted sense of high GDP per capita – have a lower IMR because they have the means to invest in healthcare, sanitation, drugs etc.

I guess it’s obvious why this is a human rights issue: you can hardly say that people can enjoy their human rights when they die before they are 1. Of course, it’s not as if someone is directly violating these children’s right to life. Infant mortality is in most cases not a deliberate act. But rights can be violated by act as well as omission. In many cases, it’s easy to prevent the child from dying, and those who have the power to do something about it also have the responsibility.