Unintended Consequences of Enforcement of Child Marriage Laws
Summary of the HLPF virtual side event on July 9, 2020

1. Child Marriage Laws

Minimum age at marriage laws, or child marriage laws that make marriage illegal under age 18, are a common response to address child marriage. Implementing and enforcing child marriage laws are thought to be a way to prevent child marriages from occurring and when they do occur, remedy that child marriage by nullifying it and punishing those involved.

Some international standards are used to justify child marriage laws. Internationally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that those entering into marriage must do so freely and be at full age and the Convention on the Elimination of Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) declares child marriage illegal. In sub-Saharan Africa, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the 1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) protect the rights of children.

Laws may be a tool in a toolkit: a part of a multi-pronged approach to address child marriage. Previous research using data from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa found that countries with consistent laws that set the minimum age of marriage at 18 had higher median ages at marriage (Maswikwa et al., 2015). However, laws themselves may be insufficient to bring about change in child marriage practices. As Girls Not Brides notes “a strong legal and policy system can provide an important backdrop for improvements in services, changes in social norms and girls’ empowerment.”

2. About the Event

On July 9, 2020, the More than Brides Alliance in collaboration with Girls Not Brides; the Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, Her Choice Alliance, and Partners for Law in Development (PLD), hosted a panel event as part of the High-Level Political Forum. Bringing together a panel diverse in geographic focus and expertise, we examined unintended consequences of enforcement of child marriage laws and discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic influences strategies to address child marriage.

Speakers included:
Moderation: Esther de Vreede, Director of Programme Implementation, Simavi/MTBA
Opening remarks: Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell, Chief Executive Officer, Girls Not Brides (GNB), The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.
Lucía Berro Pizzarossa, Vecinas Feministas: Unintended stigmatisation of adolescent´s sexual rights as a result of child marriage laws
Madhu Mehra, Partners for Law in Development India: Do punitive laws help eliminate child marriage – the Indian experience
Gerald Kato, Her Choice: A programmatic view on ending child marriages in times of COVID-19 in Uganda
AJ Melnikas, Population Council/MTBA: Perceptions of Enforcement of Child Marriage Laws in Rural Malawi

3. Summary Findings of Unintended Consequences of Child Marriage Laws

The event was rich with interesting perspectives from around the globe and excellent questions from the audience. We encourage you to view the event recording and presentations here.
a. The existence of laws does not prevent child marriages from occurring. We heard this across contexts and it is due to a number of factors, including laws not addressing the root causes of child marriage and laws having the unintended effect of encouraging people to hide child marriages or not register these marriages.
b. The criminalization of child marriage can lead to negative impacts on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for girls. When marriages are illegal this can lead to girls having a lack of access to SRHR services, and reducing adolescent autonomy and SRHR.
c. Child marriage laws can be used by parents to retaliate against girls for self-arranged marriages.
d. Child marriage laws can lead to practices that have good intentions, like marriage withdrawals, that end child marriages once they are recognized, but these practices may not lead to improved circumstances for girls.
e. UNFPA estimates that COVID-19 is expected to lead to 13 million additional child marriages. One effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that establishing and enforcing laws may become a more desirable programmatic strategy when other activities are limited due to lockdowns and social distancing.

4. Program and Policy Recommendations

  • Programs should seek to understand how the law is understood from different perspectives in communities where they work and how laws are enforced at the local level.
  • Programs should advocate for strengthening and enforcing laws only when other program strategies that address the underlying causes of child marriage are also included in that investment.
  • Communication around laws should focus on the reasons behind the law, like protecting girls, investing in girls’ education, and the value of delaying marriage for individuals and populations.
  • Where practices like marriage withdrawal occur, programs should consider focusing efforts on helping girls who are withdrawn navigate the transition.

We call on NGOs and governments to join us in recommitting & accelerating efforts to end child marriage:

  • Include girls meaningfully in COVID-19 response
  • Support CSO’s and youth-led movements
  • Invest and strengthen action on education, SRHR, and GBV

We urge you to visit the campaign website by clicking here and read and sign the Call to Action.

5. Linking Child Marriages to the 2030 Agenda

This virtual side-event was organized on the occasion of the United Nations High Level Political Forum (HLPF). The HLPF was mandated in 2012 by the outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), “The Future We Want”. The Forum is the United Nations’ central platform for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It provides for the full and effective participation of all UN Member States. The theme of the 2020 session was “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development” (UN Economic and Social Council, 2020).

This virtual event was organized because now more than ever, ending child marriage needs to be on the global agenda. As COVID-19 limits on-the-ground programmatic activities, and changing and enforcing minimum age at marriage laws may become a more feasible child marriage prevention approach.

The yearly report of the UN Secretary-General on progress towards the 17 SDGs has been released ahead of the 2020 session of the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The report draws on the latest available data on the indicators contained in the global SDG indicator framework as of April 2020. It also highlights the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on each SDG. It finds “continued unevenness of progress” and identifies areas where significant improvement is required (UN Secretary-General, 2020). At the same time, progress was stalled or reversed on increasing inequalities.

Specifically on Goal 5: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, the commitments have brought about improvements in some areas, but the promise of a world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality and all legal, social and economic barriers to their empowerment have been removed, remains unfulfilled. The current pandemic is also hitting women and girls hard (UN Secretary-General, 2020; High Level Political Forum, 2020).

So, now more than ever it’s important that governments but the international community as a whole join forces to ensure that action is taken and we deliver on all SDGs but specifically on SDG 5.3: “to eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage” (SDG, 2020).