The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 40.3 million people are enslaved around the world. Of those, 15.4 million are in situations of forced marriage.

Forced marriage occurs when an individual, regardless of their age, has been forced to marry without consent. While forced marriage impacts both sexes, the ILO reports that 84 percent of the victims are girls and women. Until recently, forced marriage had not been considered from a slavery perspective, however, there is now increasing acknowledgement – particularly with the official recognition of forced marriage in the 2016 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report – that the absence of autonomy entering into the union, coupled with the abuse present in many forced marriages and the inability for many to leave, amounts to modern-day slavery.

There are three main types of forced marriage: forced marriage of adults, early or child marriage, and trafficking for marriage. There are numerous reasons why forced marriage occurs, including the payment of a bride price, cancellation of debt, or to settle a dispute, abduction by an armed group – as was the case with many of the girls taken by Boko Haram – deception, to offload financial responsibility – often the case after a natural disaster or during migration – and sometimes to secure another individual’s residency in a country, among others. Regardless of the reason, once the marriage is entered, the risk of additional abuse and exploitation multiplies. For example, after entering a forced marriage an individual is often subjected to forced labor, sexual exploitation, and/or domestic servitude.

The risk of exploitation and abuse is compounded, and the question of consent complicated, when the victim is a child. Though Girls Not Brides reports that 12 million girls are married each year before the age of 18, not all child marriage amounts to modern-day slavery, particularly if both parties are of similar age, notably 16-18. The ILO estimates that 37 percent of those living in forced marriage were children at the time of the marriage, and 44 percent of those individuals were under the age of 15. Forced marriage of children has negative education, economic, and health impacts in addition to stripping a child of their childhood and control over their future. When girls are married off, they often leave school, leading to limited economic opportunities. Further, given the age of many brides and their lack of power in sexual relations, there can be severe health complications stemming from early pregnancies before the body is developed enough to give birth. This is in addition to the grave human rights abuses that many girls and young women endure, including forced labor, rape, domestic servitude, and physical and verbal abuse, with the inability to leave.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 1.4 percent of the total detected victims of trafficking are trafficked for marriage. As with other forms of human trafficking, trafficking for marriage occurs in a number of forms and many of the victims are left in situations of modern-day slavery. For example, according to the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, in China, the sex imbalance – due, in part, to the One Child Policy – has created a large demand for brides, both Chinese and foreign. To keep up with demand, women have been abducted or lured with false promises from countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and North Korea. Poor Chinese men often purchase a foreign bride because the price is much less than the needed dowries and gifts to marry a local. Other examples include a family member selling an individual to a trafficker and/or partner and situations in which the victim is confined, raped, and abused as a means to obtain consent – the UNODC reports that this has been used by criminal networks to acquire residence permits for the European Union.

While the link between forced marriage and modern-day slavery is clear, more data is needed to fully grasp the severity of the problem and identify appropriate solutions. For instance, the ILO report acknowledges that it is likely that forced marriage is “massively under-detected.” Ending forced marriage would mark a significant impact not only in the fight against modern-day slavery and human trafficking, but also, more broadly speaking, for gender equality. This is reflected in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in which both ending human trafficking and child marriage are included in Goal 5 to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”

For additional information on forced and/or child marriage, read the following:

Forced at 15: an interactive web documentary from Al Jazeera

2016 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: ILO report, published in September 2017, documenting modern-day slavery (forced labor and forced marriage) around the world

Girls Not Brides: global partnership of over 900 civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfill their potential

2018 Insight Series – Forced Marriage: a short brief on forced marriage from the Walk Free Foundation

Behind Closed Doors: Child and Early Marriage as Slavery: a 2015 report from Anti-Slavery International

Photo courtesy of Jessica Lea/Department for International Development