KABUL - Eliminating child marriage should be a key political priority for governments across the globe to protect the rights of girls and women, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and UNICEF demanded on Thursday.
On the first-ever International Day of the Girl Child, HRW said child marriage occurred when one of the parties was below 18 years of age and was a violation of human rights that disproportionately affected girls.
The practice also violates other rights, including the right of education, freedom from violence, reproductive rights, access to reproductive and sexual health care, employment, freedom of movement and the right to consensual marriage, according to a statement from HRW.
In Afghanistan, the watchdog documented how young girls who tried to escape from forced marriages or who ran away from abusive spouses and their families were arrested and imprisoned.
Bashira, 14, told HRW she was 12 when her father forced her to marry. She became pregnant soon after the marriage. Bashira fled from her abusive husband, but instead of receiving government protection, she was accused and convicted of "running away," and sentenced to two years in juvenile detention.
Human Rights Watch interviewed other Afghan girls in who had fled forced and abusive marriages and were treated as criminals by the government.
In order to effectively address the problem, HRW urged states to enact legislation that sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, and include requirements for the verification of the full and meaningful consent of both spouses.
It also called safeguard by law a victim's right to seek financial compensation after voiding, annulling, divorcing, or otherwise dissolving the marriage and protecting the rights of children born out of such a marriage.
In addition to improved access to reproductive healthcare for all girls and women in rural and urban areas, the group recommended awareness among health workers and the public on the importance of registering births, including home deliveries.
Meanwhile, UNICEF calledchild marriage a harsh reality for too many young women in Afghanistan. More than 46 per cent of Afghan women are married before the age of 18, it said, quoting the Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2010/2011. More than 15 percent are married before age 15.
"The requirement for the free and informed consent of both parties to a marriage is recognized in international legal instruments to which Afghanistan is a party, as well as under its national laws in cognizance with the principles of Islam," the UNAMA chief said.
Ján Kubiš referred to the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law that criminalized the practice, recognizing that a child under the legal age of marriage is not capable of giving her valid consent to enter into marriage.
"A forward-looking Afghanistan must ensure that all necessary measures are taken to fulfill its international and national legal obligations in protecting the girl child from such illegal and harmful practices which prevent them from full enjoyment of their fundamental rights," he commented.
Dr. Laurent Zessler, UNFPA's Afghanistan representative described child marriage as a health issue as well as a human rights violation. The official noted a strong correlation between the age of the mother and maternal mortality and morbidity.
Girls aged 10-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20-24, according to Zessler, who said Afghanistan's maternal mortality rate was still 327 deaths per 100,000 live births.
Vidhya Ganesh, UNICEF's deputy representative in Afghanistan, said: "The link between access to education and the prevention of early marriage is clear. When girls stay in school, they are far less likely to marry young and so are far more likely to delay child birth until they are physically and psychologically prepared."
In March 2003, Afghanistan ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), stating that no marriage of a child can be considered legal.
However the practice is still widespread in the country, depriving girls of their childhood and limiting their potential for participation in the political, economic and social development of their communities and of their country. (Pajhwok)