This year’s Human Rights Watch Global Council Summit took place in Berlin between the 20th and the 22nd of June at the European School of Management and Technology. This conference addressed a wide spectrum of issues, from the refugee crisis, to the rights of the disabled, LGBT, women and children. The conference also offered interactive events such as speed dating sessions with human rights experts and advocacy training workshops.
The summit culminated with the presentation of the Theodor Wanner Prize by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen – for the first time it was awarded to an organisation rather than individuals. The ceremony took place at the Allianz Stiftungsforum at Pariser Platz and it was followed by a reception with a spectacular view of the Brandenburger Gate.
International discussion on ending child marriage
In line with the UN-Sustainable Development Goals to eliminate child marriage by 2030, Human Rights Watch is involved with the protection of children and the empowerment of women.
On the second day of the Council Summit, a panel of experts held a conference on setting global standards to end child marriage. Heather Barr (Senior Women’s Rights Researcher), Dewa Mavhinga (Senior Researcher for Zimbabwe and Southern Africa) and Emma Daly (Acting Deputy Executive Director for Media) presented aspects of their research in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
The discussion started with a short introductory movie about the child brides in Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has been researching and evaluating the situation in this area and has recently published their results through various reports and documentaries.
Causes of child marriage
The factors leading to child marriages are numerous and cannot be exhaustively presented. However, some of them are more prevalent in a certain country, which can be a good starting point when it comes to addressing the issue.
In Bangladesh, one of the main reasons for parents marrying their children is to escape poverty. By giving away their girl, they have one less mouth to feed and can sometimes expect to pay a lower dowry (the younger the girl, the lower the dowry). Moreover, when a girl marries, she does not have to attend school anymore. Even when education is free, it triggers costs (for exams, uniforms, stationary etc.) that the families are not always able to afford.
In Zimbabwe, the main reason is prevalently of a religious nature: influential local church doctrine (especially in smaller communities) requires young girls to marry as soon as they reach puberty. Families want to prevent their daughters from having sexual relations or being romantically involved prior to their marriage. Due to a lack of sexual education, intercourse often results in pregnancy. Girls will then have to marry the father of the child in order to protect their family’s honour – this also includes the cases of rape.
Current Legislation in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe
In both countries, the laws do not protect the victims enough, and they are often contradictory and/ or non-existent.
Unfortunately, the legal provisions tend to worsen in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently attempted to lower the legal age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16. In a country where the rate of marriage is the highest for girls under 15, such proposals raise serious doubts about the government’s commitment to tackle the issue.
In Zimbabwe on the other hand, the Government is working towards enhancing legal provisions. About a month ago, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced his determination to make it a criminal offence to pay bride wealth for girls under the age of 18. Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court declared the practice to be unconstitutional and ruled that the minimum age for girls and boys to marry would be 18. Although the main problem is the implementation of these laws in local levels, it is encouraging to see that these measures are being taken at the highest level of the State.
Consequences of child marriage can be devastating. Young girls are neither mentally nor physically prepared to carry children; the maternal and child mortality rates are extremely high. Moreover, the child brides can be severely abused by their in-laws or face rejection. If they come back to their families, they usually bring their children with them, which results in more mouth to feed for the family.
But many girls are also orphans and they do not have anywhere to go back to. Governments and NGOs are unable to provide enough shelters for women to take refuge at. In some countries like Afghanistan, women can even be sent to jail on the count of “immorality”, one of these moral crimes being running away from the husband.
Talking to a trustworthy person
The conference was then followed by a dialogue with the audience. One aspect that was addressed was the way of approaching such sensitive issues. Even though the staff talked about a general willingness of the girls to share their stories, it is still important to be very careful when reporting these stories; especially in small communities where everyone in the village or town will hear about it. Human Rights Watch therefore usually tries to find a person the girls trust. That person will not only be the translator, but also and more importantly a person the girls will open up to; ultimately, it is that person the girls talk to during interviews.
What can be done?
Most guests wanted to know what concrete measures are being taken or could be implemented to end child marriage. Three main ways of action were addressed.
One aspect would be to tackle poverty. Since it is one of the main causes of child marriage, it seems logical to start there. However, it also is pretty clear that eradicating poverty is difficult, if not impossible. Especially since many families lose their homes and other belongings due to natural disasters. Nonetheless, on a smaller scale, there are some good examples of communities which have stopped the practice of child marriage, simply because one of their entire generation’s tuition fees were paid for, allowing their children to get educated and financially relieving their parents.
Secondly, it is important to work with the government and to make sure that laws are actually enforced. In many communities, the government officials are not only turning a blind eye to child marriage, but also facilitating it. It is crucial that anyone who encourages the practice bears consequences – for example, by making sure that anyone who falsifies birth certificates or legally registers wedding of minors lose their jobs. There should also be a reinforcement of existing laws to punish marital rape and avoid loopholes such as the parental consent. More regular and strict background checks should be imposed to verify the bride’s age and make sure that both spouses fully and freely consent to the wedding.
The schools’ obligations could be to make sure that teachers enquire why some pupils suddenly do not come to school anymore and report the missing students.
Finally, and probably the most efficient way of action to be addressed in this conference, is to educate the population. NGOs like Human Rights Watch play an important role in this, by communicating with people about the consequences (health problems, distress, high mortality rates) of child marriage. According to the Human Rights Watch staff, the most efficient way to convince parents not to marry their children too early is to make them aware of the consequences for themselves. For example, making them realise that having not only to take the girl back in case of rejection by the in-laws, but also the children she might have by then.More importantly, several groups of self-help campaign against child marriage and are informing the population within their communities. In Bangladesh, a local child protection group called the “Wedding Busters” are led by teenagers themselves, who perform theatre acts about child marriage and tours villages to speak to their friends and neighbours, trying to convince them to stop the practice. There are no statistics on the actual effectiveness of such door-to-door outreach, but it is likely that lobby coming from members of the community themselves are more efficient than the input some strangers might have.
Similarly in Zambia, a group of students at the Lusaka Girls School who participate in an empowerment club wrote a song which is now used in the world-wide campaign “Girls not Brides” of which Human Rights Watch is a member of.