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ILO Legitimizes Child Marriage

— ILO's failure to recognize child marriage as child labor leaves millions of girls invisible and without protection —

October 20, 2014—Just last month, AIDS-Free World sent a letter to the Director-General of the International Labor Organization (ILO) asking him to correct a serious error: the ILO does not recognize child marriage as child labor. It does not include the millions of child wives around the world in its mandate. We had hoped that in time for this year’s International Day of the Girl Child, the Director-General would rectify this gross oversight in the ILO’s calculations.

Instead, they sent AIDS-Free World a response that was confusing and shocking: the adult labor performed by child wives does not qualify for ILO protection because it takes place within the girls’ own homes. We take great issue with that reasoning. Girls who are removed from their childhood homes to live with older “husbands” are used as round-the-clock domestic servants, habitually raped, and deprived of their potential and their dignity. For the ILO to champion the end of child labor, but turn a blind eye to young girls who are married off because they work in their own homes, is to endorse the entire practice of child marriage.

By refusing to categorize child marriage as child labor, the ILO diminishes the intense impact of child marriages on girls—it is one horrific violation that triggers many others. The omission also does a great disservice to the many agencies, governments, organizations, and individuals who look to the ILO as the standard-bearers for child labor. Without formal recognition from the ILO, many will continue to view child marriage as something that is unfortunate only because it is a rite of passage that simply happens too soon for some females. They will not comprehend the utter destruction it can bring to the lives of girls, and they will not adequately respond to the human rights abuses and labor violations that are taking place.

The ILO recently reported that child labor involvement is higher among boys than girls—approximately 100 million boys versus 68 million girls. If they include the millions of child wives around the world, the gender gap shifts significantly.

Child marriage is child labor

The ILO’s response failed to address the problem at hand, and the problem is of staggering dimension. In the next year, an estimated 14.2 million girls will be forced into marriages. A frightening proportion of them will be under the age of 15. They will be trapped as domestic servants and sex slaves in homes around the world, working in abusive conditions that threaten their lives and their health. They will suffer immense human rights and labor violations on a daily basis, and many will die as a result. Yet it appears they will remain invisible in ILO reports, and they will not fall under ILO protection.

Girls who are married are deprived of their childhood and their education. They enter a daily life of servitude, where they are forced to perform adult work at a young age. Child wives spend long hours cooking and cleaning, they work night shifts caring for children, and they do not get breaks or rest periods. They live and work under the complete control of their older husbands. If they refuse or resist this labor, they often face physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. UNFPA reports that at its worst, child marriage can be “tantamount to bonded labor or enslavement.”

Child labor in the marriage industry comes with an especially brutal twist: child wives are raped repeatedly. Children are too young to provide consent—either to marriage or to sex with husbands who are forced upon them. Even the use of the term “marriage” confers a sense of legitimacy and social acceptance that masks the underlying reality: child marriage is the equivalent of child rape. The millions of men who take ownership of child wives commit both labor violations and criminal acts with impunity.

The rape inherent in child marriage can be deadly. Pregnancy, labor and delivery are extremely dangerous for girls: in developing countries, complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19. Girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women aged 20 to 24. Many of those who survive childbirth will suffer from obstetric fistula, a disability that leaves girls with chronic pain and incontinence, vulnerable to infection, and ostracized by their families. Child wives are also at a heightened risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections because they lack power to negotiate safer sex and have little access to AIDS information or services. Young girls are especially vulnerable to infection because their vaginal tissues are not yet mature enough for intercourse.

From the moment a girl is forced into marriage, her life is irreparably altered. That one decision, a decision made by other people without her consent, permanently removes all of her fundamental rights as a child—to education, health, rest, leisure, play and recreation, protection from violence, and protection from performing any work that is likely to harm her physical, mental, spiritual, moral, or social development. It also violates a child’s right not to be separated from her parents against her will when it is not in her best interest. The psychological consequences of experiencing isolation, rape, and physical abuse at a young age can last a lifetime. Other child laborers may be able escape their work when they turn 18, and may even have the power and ability to choose a different job or industry. Child wives are in a lifelong contract, and the opportunity costs are massive.

It is estimated that in the next decade, more than 140 million girls will be forced into marriages. Fifty million girls are at risk of being married before their 15th birthday. They will be exploited and abused by their societies; they should not be abandoned by the United Nations. As things currently stand, the ILO leads the abandonment.


Media contacts:
Gill Mathurin, Tel: +1-647-406-5731, gm@aidsfreeworld.org
Shonali Shome, Tel: +1-415-992-2145, ss@aidsfreeworld.org