Early Marriage

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Birth, marriage and death are the standard But only one – marriage – is a matter of choice. The right to exercise that choice
was recognized as a principle of law even
in Roman times and has long been established
in international human rights instruments.
Yet many girls, and a smaller number
of boys, enter marriage without any
chance of exercising their right to choose.
Some are forced into marriage at a very
early age. Others are simply too young to
make an informed decision about their
marriage partner or about the implications
of marriage itself. They may have given
what passes for ‘consent’ in the eyes of
custom or the law, but in reality, consent
to their binding union has been made by
others on their behalf.
The assumption is that once a girl is
married, she has become a woman – even
if she is only 12. Equally, where a boy is
made to marry, he is now a man and must
put away childish things. While the age of
marriage is generally on the rise, early
marriage – marriage of children and adolescents
below the age of 18 – is still widely
While early marriage takes many different
forms and has various causes, one issue
is paramount. Whether it happens to a girl
or a boy, early marriage is a violation of
human rights. The right to free and full
consent to a marriage is recognized in the
1948 Universal Declaration of Human
Rights (UDHR) and in many subsequent
human rights instruments – consent that
cannot be ‘free and full’ when at least one
partner is very immature. For both girls
and boys, early marriage has profound
physical, intellectual, psychological and
emotional impacts, cutting off educational
opportunity and chances of personal
growth. For girls, in addition, it will almost
certainly mean premature pregnancy and
childbearing, and is likely to lead to a lifetime
of domestic and sexual subservience
over which they have no control.
Yet many societies, primarily in Africa
and South Asia, continue to...
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