In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Kaitlyn Denzler, a women’s rights campaigner at Amnesty International USA.
Child marriage is on the decline, but it is a slow progress. There are currently 700 million women living today who were married before their 18th birthday—or 10% of the total global population. In the developing world, the figure is at a staggering one third of girls under the age of 18.
Early and forced marriage not only strips girls of their childhood, but also their future. Girls married young are often taken out of school prematurely, which helps perpetuate the cycle of child marriage: Uneducated girls are more likely to become child brides, while uneducated parents are more likely to marry their children off. As a result, this diminishes the prospects of girls living fulfilling lives and exacerbates gender inequality worldwide.
The international community has recognized child marriage as one of its most pressing development issues, and has made exceptional efforts to end the practice. In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council recognized that child marriage violates human rights, and adopted it in its post-2015 global development agenda. More recently, 13 nations in the Asia-Pacific region convened in Nepal to sign the Kathmandu Declaration against child marriage that commits participants to establish a minimum age of 18 for marriage.
Child marriage is not confined to developing nations alone—or highly conservatively religious ones—but also takes place in the West where blindness to the issue has provided a space for it to flourish. From a social experiment capturing the reactions of New Yorkers as a 65-year-old man marries an adolescent girl publicly in Times Square that went viral on YouTube, to Virginia state Senator Jill Vogel’s efforts to advance a bill to ban child marriage that has picked up national momentum, Americans are beginning to take notice of the issue.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Kaitlyn Denzler, a women’s rights campaigner at Amnesty International USA. Denzler is a returned Peace Corps volunteer and has worked for the US State Department and International Center for Research on Women before joining Amnesty International USA in the spring of 2015.
Dina Yazdani: Can you explain to our readers the extent of the problem child marriage represents across the globe?
Kaitlyn Denzler: To quickly define child marriage—it is a formal marriage or informal union, which is of course to distinguish between marriage before the age of 18. Amnesty International and other organizations try to highlight the fact that it happens to boys as well, but it really impacts girls more than anything. Early and forced marriage is widespread problem and currently impacts approximately 15 million girls worldwide. You can put it in another way—it happens to 28 girls every minute, if that’s how you want to frame it.
It really touches every aspect of a child’s life. Girls who marry early have little or no access to education, which directly impacts their opportunities later in life—social and economic opportunities. Child brides also face a higher risk of experiencing dangerous and life-threatening complications in pregnancy, contracting STIs, and also violence at the hand of their intimate partners. The consequences are dire, and it really impacts the whole of the girl.
Yazdani: Which countries have the highest rate of child marriage?
Denzler: Referencing Girls Not Brides, Niger is number one, the Central African Republic, Chad, Bangladesh, Mali. And the list goes on—it’s all across the world. It also happens in the United States. The scale is definitely different. There are organizations that are leading the work in the US. You hear cases about forced marriage almost everyday, with very similar consequences: violence, economic deprivation, being ostracized by their families. The scenarios are very similar.
Yazdani: Why are parents marrying their children off at such a young age? And what are the economic and social forces driving child marriage?
Denzler: It varies. There’s not one straightforward answer as to why this is happening. I can’t speak for other countries, but families sometimes do it as a way of consolidating relationships between different groups or different communities. The promise of marriage can be acquired at birth or during a boy or girl’s childhood, so it can happen very young.
Also in terms of the economic benefits, a girl’s parents may receive a dowry from the boy’s or the husband’s family. So the payment of that can vary from region to region depending on income. It can be in exchange of agriculture or livestock—very, very important things for a community. So it really depends. We also see in times of conflict that this can be exasperated because people can become so desperate so it seems like a rational decision to make—we can make money this way. It’s a really tough situation to be in.
Yazdani: Can these young girls escape from forced marriages, and what happens if they try to?
Denzler: We know from our research, and some of the work that our team members have done, that there are shelters all across Burkina Faso. There aren’t many, but they are run by incredible people that sort of open up this space for girls. And girls definitely try to escape. That can be very dangerous for them. I don’t know what the exact consequences have been for girls who have tried to escape. But Amnesty International is conducting research on the ground with our Burkina Faso team there, which will go into detail about what is happening when girls are trying to escape and what kind of support system is there for them.
Amnesty International also has a petition where we are trying to collect as many signatures as possible so that we can hand it over to the government and show that people are really concerned about this and how they are supporting girls, and what happens after the shelter— are their families going to welcome them back? So all of these questions that we don’t have answers to yet until the research comes out. Stay tuned on that.
Yazdani: Many countries where child marriage occurs have actually adopted international agreements prohibiting it and have codified it into national law. So why does it continue to happen on such a large scale?
Denzler: It’s such a great point, right? I mean, in a lot of these countries—including Burkina Faso—child marriage is illegal. And you said it exactly right: It is written in the law, it’s on the books, they’ve adopted campaigns to end child marriage, or adopted national strategies or actions to prevent it, but we’re seeing a huge disconnect between what’s on the books, and what’s actually happening in communities.
The reality is that in most places the laws are not being enforced. And that could be that there is just that gap, or that it’s on the books and that we don’t have the means to enforce it [because] the system is not in place, but it’s also important to know that the Amnesty Burkina Faso team and local activists have really made it a point to raise awareness about it within local communities that this is the law, and that this is the consequence if you break the law. So there’s also this gap in awareness that we’re seeing in a lot of communities.
Yazdani: Why has Amnesty International decided to focus its efforts against child marriage on Burkina Faso, and what exactly is it doing to help child rights there?
Denzler: Our work on child marriage in Burkina Faso is a direct outgrowth of our previous reporting on the high maternal mortality in Burkina Faso. The high rates of maternal mortality are caused by a number of factors, but chief among them is high child marriage—the longer a girl delays marriage, the less likely she is to die in childbirth. We will also be doing advocacy work around ending early and forced child marriage in other countries, such as Mali, later.
We have a global petition. So a lot of the work focuses on promoting the petition that will be delivered to the government later in the year. And this petition is asking them to enforce the law, and to guarantee protection, as well as shelter and protection for victims of child marriages and to raise awareness throughout communities on the ban of forced early child marriage and for girls to find assistance if they are at risk. So those are our three main asks of the Burkina Faso government.
It’s so weird when we look at our own country instead of reflecting on what is the law here. In some states, you can get married at the age of fifteen with parental consent. It’s state-by-state, [so it] is really tough in the United States to work on these issues. Would you call that early child marriage?
We’re also, on our side of things—I’m with Amnesty International USA—have met with US government officials and Burkina Faso embassy staff to raise awareness of Amnesty’s concerns and recommendations. We’ll be doing a lot more advocacy work. This [advocacy around ending child marriage] is a new area for us, but we’ll be doing more advocacy on this after our report comes out in April. We’ll be releasing a film as well around that time which will help garner and raise awareness around that a little more.
Another thing I would mention around what we’re doing, is that we had a team of Amnesty delegates meet with the Burkina Faso government and officials in 2015. The government actually signed onto an Amnesty manifesto that ensures an end to child marriage, which was a big win for us. We also found out that—after one of Amnesty’s largest actions, which is called Write for Rights, where Amnesty activists from all around the world take action—the minister of justice confirmed that our concerns have been heard. As a result, the ministry plans to raise the legal age of marriage for girls to 18 years—it was 17 for girls and 20 for boys—and to ensure that forced marriage is clearly defined in Burkina Faso’s criminal code. So this is all very encouraging, but we still need to keep the pressure going to make sure that those words are put into action.
Yazdani: In December of last year, Burkina Faso adopted a national 10-year plan of action to end child marriage, which includes engaging community leaders, increasing access to education, and enforcing existing laws that respects the rights of women. Does it go far enough, and do you think it will actually make an impact?
Denzler: It is really a positive step that they decided to put together this strategy. It’s huge, and a lot of other countries are doing this too. I think that it is to be determined if it goes far enough, because it goes back to the question you asked earlier [about] why we haven’t seen anything changing, and actually making sure that the population of Burkina Faso actually knows that child marriage is illegal and that this law exists. People knowing that the law exists means there has to be some accountability and protection for the people who try to get out of this. So I think that the strategy really is a great step and also the fact that the government has committed to ending early and forced child marriage. So we’ll see. I think we need to wait to answer that question.
Yazdani: Is an effective method for engaging these communities to enforce the law themselves?
Denzler: In Burkina Faso, the team is doing incredible work in terms of promoting these conversations among different communities throughout Burkina Faso. And they’re doing it in a number of ways. They’re using human rights education pieces, theater pieces, open dialogue conversations, and really sort of tailoring that boring law-stuff into what’s really accessible information on what is the law and what rights do I have so that people can actually be right-holders.
Yazdani: Going back to the US—recently child marriage has made national headlines, with some describing it as an “unseen threat in the US.” How big of a problem is it here, and in the West in general?
Denzler: We do work obviously outside of the US, but we know that it is happening inside the United States. I don’t know what the numbers are on this, but I know that the Tahirih Justice Center did a survey on child marriages in the United States, and they found that it is affecting all kinds of families—immigrant, and non-immigrant families—and they also found very diverse religious and socio-cultural backgrounds. So it’s not like there is one place to look for this. Especially in the United States where it’s kept under the rug.
Yazdani: Is there early marriage in the US, if there is parental consent?
Denzler: Yeah! It’s so weird when we look at our own country instead of reflecting on what is the law here. In some states, you can get married at the age of fifteen with parental consent. It’s state-by-state, [so it] is really tough in the United States to work on these issues. Would you call that early child marriage? I don’t know. In the United States we rely heavily on parental consent, but when you’re talking about a child or a teenager, we don’t know their stories or if there’s coercion behind that marriage and the backstories to that. And that’s the obstacle part to this.
Yazdani: Some lawmakers now are making an effort to change that, and to change the law to 18, as it already is in so many of these developing nations. But that hasn’t happened for the US yet.
Denzler: It’s insane. There are some things that we look at like the Convention on the Rights of a Child, governments have committed to ensuring the protection of children under the age of 18. It’s a tough one.
Yazdani: So what is the solution? How can we get to a world free of child marriage?
Denzler: That is a very, very tough question. There’s definitely no one-size-fits-all solution. It’s going to be country to country, local community to local community, very context specific. When Amnesty is working on this, we look a lot to the law. That is the way we believe that we really can start to see a change. And we look at the longer term, which is what are we looking at in terms of attitudinal change, and how societies are changing and perceiving these issues.
Unfortunately, I will have to say that is a very long-term process. It takes a very long time to change minds. I would say it starts with the law, but for that law to actually mean something, it would take long-term attitudinal shift. And that happens in local communities. I think it’s something that we can’t do from outside. We really can’t. And that’s why the teams are working on this on a local level, and working with local leaders and local communities. That’s the way it will slowly start to change.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.