Each year, about 15 million girls are married as minors around the world. Widely known as “child marriage,” campaigners say the practice puts girls at increased risk of violence and abuse, and impacts their health and education. Eliminating it is a target of Sustainable Development Goal 5.3.
But some activists argue that the term “child marriage” fails to adequately describe the issue, and that the development community should work to find a new term to help reframe our understanding of it.
The African Union’s Goodwill Ambassador on Ending Child Marriage Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda has long made the case for this, telling the United Nations General Assembly in 2014 that child marriage is “sexual abuse” and that “by calling it ‘marriage,’ we’re giving it legality and social and moral acceptance.”
In a conversation with Devex, Jacqui Hunt, Europe director of Equality Now, agreed that “the term ‘marriage’ is really very problematic.”
But others argue that the term benefits from widespread acceptance, which helps when mediating between different groups and working in varied contexts.
The debate is part of a trend within global development to question how our choice of language can frame our understanding of an issue, and the way that it’s perceived by communities — particularly when it comes to issues heavily rooted in social norms or public perception, such as the recent debate around the use of the terms “refugee” and “migrant.”Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides, told Devex that “child brides tend to be under intense pressure to have children often and early,” and that as young mothers they are more likely to suffer severe health consequences from pregnancy and childbirth. She added that child brides are typically pulled out of school early and are sometimes removed from their family networks.
The ability to give full, free and informed consent to marriage as a minor is also an issue. In recent times, some groups have started to frame child marriage under certain circumstances as a form of modern slavery.
While some activists argue that “child marriage” does not adequately capture the rights violations involved, they also acknowledge the difficulties in finding a new term.
Sundaram suggested that finding the right language might differ depending on the context of a discussion or communication.
In this video (link provided below) , Devex delves into the debate and asks: Do we need a new term for child marriage?