Ana was married when she was 15-years-old to a man twice her age. She suffered domestic violence for over five years. She had been told by her mother and mother-in-law that such abuse was “normal” and a wife’s duty to bear it.
Ana did not have control over her life, suffered long-term abuse in her marriage, and was not realistically able to leave her husband. She was in slavery.
Child marriage and forced marriage
Marriage involving children under 18-years-old remains a widely culturally accepted practice in many corners of the globe. UNICEF estimates that 11% of women worldwide were married before reaching the age of 15. Although boys can be affected by the practice, it is mostly girls who suffer slavery as a consequence of child marriage.
There has been growing awareness about the negative consequences of child marriage, especially for girls, including the impact of marriage on children’s education and risks to their physical and psychological health.
It should be noted that many marriages involving children will not amount to slavery, particularly between couples aged 16 to 18 years. However, child marriage can also obscure what are actually cases of slavery or slavery-like practices.
When is child marriage considered slavery?
Child marriage can be referred to as slavery, if one or more of the following elements are present:
- If the child has not genuinely given their free and informed consent to enter the marriage
- If the child is subjected to control and a sense of “ownership” in the marriage itself, particularly through abuse and threats and is exploited by being forced to undertake domestic chores within the marital home or labour outside it, and/or engage in non-consensual sexual relations
- If the child cannot realistically leave or end the marriage, leading potentially to a lifetime of slavery.
Children are in a weaker position to give free, full and informed consent to marriage than adults, even if they appear to ‘agree’ or don’t express refusal.
Many children have little or no control over their movements or person within marriage, including over sexual relations. Girls in particular are commonly controlled through violence, threats and humiliation, as well as experiencing isolation and loneliness.
Children may not realistically be able to leave their marriage. For example, they may not be able to support themselves financially or may fear repercussions from in-laws and the wider community, as well as their own families.
Girls who leave their marriages without support are often vulnerable to other forms of slavery and exploitation.