Across the globe each year, as many as 14.2 million girls marry before becoming adults; in developing countries, one in every three girls is married before reaching the age of 18 (UNFPA); and, according to a UNICEF 2014 study, 18 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 - almost one in five – were married or in an informal union in the Latin America and Caribbean Region. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, between 2005 and 2009 there were 747 brides and 15 bridegrooms under the age of 18 (Central Statistical Office (CSO), 2013).
Child marriage is a violation of human rights and threatens the health, future development and lives of young girls. Of the 16 million girls that give birth annually, 90 per cent are child-brides. The leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 in developing countries are complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Infants are also 60 per cent more likely to die in their first year if their mother is under the age of 18. Early and child marriage discriminates against the girl child through the specific risks it poses to her health and well-being, as well as to her education and economic opportunities, and to her social status. “A girl who is married as a child is one whose potential will not be fulfilled,” says the Executive Director of the UNFPA, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.
Violating human rights, coercing or allowing persons who have not reached the age of sexual consent (18 years in Trinidad and Tobago) - or physical and emotional maturity- to marry also contravenes the provisions of the global agreements codifying these rights. Child marriage undermines the rights of freedom of expression, protection from all forms of abuse, and protection from harmful traditional practices identified in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It deprives the girl child of an education and jeopardizes her health, exposing her to violence and abuse, and often resulting in the early unwanted pregnancies that are life threatening for both mother and baby – and thereby flouts State obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Guaranteeing the rights of girls, boys and adolescents means incorporating within national legislative frameworks standards articulated in the CRC, CEDAW and other global human rights instruments, declarations and action documents. In order to meet these commitments, States must enact relevant legislation and implement requisite policies, and other social actors must show the necessary leadership to influence the practices and combat the prejudices that perpetuate early and child marriage.
As United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon has urged: all groups, particularly “governments, community and religious leaders, civil society, the private sector, and families – especially men and boys” must do their part to “let girls be girls, not brides.” In Trinidad and Tobago, the United Nations System stands ready to support the government in meeting its stated commitment to ensuring that children are protected and their rights upheld.
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