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Summary: Letter to the ILO on child marriage as a form of child labor

On September 19, 2014, AIDS-Free World wrote to the Director-General of the ILO, asking him to recognize child marriage as child labor. Here are some of the arguments that AIDS-Free World raised in our letter:

— The ILO states that it is “a priority to eliminate without delay the worst forms of child labor as defined by Article 3 of the ILO Convention No. 182.” Included in this Article 3 definition are “all forms of slavery and practices similar to slavery.”  Under international human rights law, a child cannot provide informed consent to a marriage; child marriages are therefore considered forced marriages and fall under the slavery-like practices defined in the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.  In 2012, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery noted that, “reaffirming forced and early marriages as slavery-like practices is important as it provides an understanding of the violations that victims endure.”

— The ILO’s worst forms of child labor also include “the sale and trafficking of children…and forced or compulsory labor.”  Child marriage meets this definition as well.  A report from the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children describes child marriage as a form of sale for the purpose of sexual exploitation, noting that one example of this is the offering of young girls as wives to men in exchange for money. Marriages negotiated by girls’ families according to payments or transactions commoditize the value of girls and reduce them to objects of sale:  they are sold to men as property to be used for sex and domestic labor.

— Some child marriage is also human trafficking.  Anti-Slavery International reports that many girls are trafficked under the pretext of marriage, and then forced into prostitution or domestic servitude.  UNFPA calls child marriage a “pathway to commercial exploitation.”   In a 2014 report on child marriage in Malawi, Human Rights Watch documented cases of girls escaping child marriages and resorting to commercial sexual exploitation or to work in tobacco farms where they were vulnerable to sexual abuse and forced labor. 

— The girls who are not trafficked and who remain in forced marriages do not fare any better, and there are clear elements of forced labor that must be addressed. Child wives face the same hazards that the ILO has already identified for child domestic workers – long and tiring working days, carrying heavy loads, handling dangerous items such as knives, axes, and hot pans, insufficient or inadequate food and accommodation, and humiliating or degrading treatment including physical and verbal violence, and sexual abuse.  The Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery reports that child wives “have no choice but to perform the tasks expected of them, such as domestic chores, shop or farm work and engaging in sexual intercourse with their husbands. If they refuse to do so, or if their performance is unsatisfactory, they face physical, psychological and sexual abuse."

— Article 3(d) of the ILO Convention No. 182 further defines the worst forms of child labor as “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.”  The fact that child marriage is harmful to the safety of children is without question. From the moment a girl enters a forced marriage, she is confined and subjected to repetitive rapes, each one a separate violent crime.  Girls under the age of 18 are too young to provide consent – either to marriage or to sex with husbands who are forced upon them.  Child wives are at a heightened risk of experiencing domestic violence overall. According to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of civil society organizations, women who were married before 18 are more likely to report being beaten by their husbands and forced to have sex than women who married after reaching age 18.   The Committee Against Torture has stated in concluding observations that child marriage amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of the torture convention.