Child Marriage in the U.S. : An Unbelievable Reality

Ending child, early and forced marriage in one of the priorities of U.S. foreign policy, as set in the U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls of 2016 which strongly condemns this practice in the developing world as a human rights abuse.

This is why it is extremely surprising to learn that, in the United States from 2000 to 2010, “in 38 states, more than 167,000 children — almost all of them girls, some as young 12 — were married […], mostly to men 18 or older” (Reiss, 2017). More recent numbers were not available for the study conducted by the organization Unchained at Last, fighting child marriage in the U.S. . However, the state of the law in several States nowadays suggests that child marriage in the U.S. is still a reality.

According to the global campaign Girls Not Brides, “child marriage is any formal marriage or informal union where one or both of the parties are under 18 years of age” (UNICEF, 2017). Despite the clear standard of 18 years old, in the State of New York, 14 year olds can be married with parental and judicial consent (Gronewold, 2017). Thus, from 2000 to 2010 in this State alone, 3,850 children were victims of child marriage (HRW, 2017).

According to Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, every State in the U.S. has exceptions that allow children below 18 to get married with parental consent and judicial approval, sometimes without even specifying an age limit below which a child cannot marry (Reiss, 2017). The youngest married children found by the study of Unchained at Last were 12 years old.

Why would parents consent to marrying their child?

Unchained at Last reports having seen child marriage happen “in nearly every American culture and religion”, in immigrant and non-immigrant families (Reiss, 2017). The motivations behind such practice are “cultural or religious traditions; a desire to control their child’s behavior or sexuality; money (a bride price or dowry); or immigration-related reasons (for instance, when a child sponsors a foreign spouse)” (Reiss, 2017). Marriage is also often seen as a solution for teen pregnancy. In addition, while some children marry of their own will, this does not exclude negative consequences for them (Reiss, 2017).

Consequences of child marriage

Child marriage has the same detrimental, lifelong effects on girls’ health, education and economic opportunities, and increases the risk of domestic violence and poverty, whether they take place in the developing world or in developed countries (UNICEF, 2017). Marriages between two persons with a certain age difference could also fall under statutory rape (Unchained at Last, 2017).

In addition, it is difficult for children victims or at risk of child marriage in the U.S. to seek help. Reis points out that children fleeing their homes are considered runaways, shelters notify parents, and child-protective services cannot prevent legal child marriages (Reiss, 2017). Moreover, children have a limited access to legal aid (Gronewold, 2017).

Why can’t a law simply be passed?

If States simply passed a law that set the age of marriage at 18 and above without exceptions, the issue of child marriage in the U.S. would be in theory addressed, preventing many child marriages and helping to provide legal remedies for victims. Legislation on child marriage tends to fail because lawmakers consider that it could impact religious freedom in certain communities, or because they assume that it is “the best solution for a teen pregnancy” (Reiss, 2017). These are false arguments, as no specific religion is targeted by a law forbidding child marriage and there thus is no discriminatory impact on the freedom of any religious community in particular (Reiss, 2017). Regarding the second argument, there are other solutions to support pregnant teens that do not require them to marry (Ibid).

However, there is some hope for progress. Bills were introduced recently for example in the States of Maryland and Massachusetts, and this month a bill was introduced to raise the minimum age for marriage to 17 in the State of New York (Gronewold, 2017). But banning child marriage in a few States only is far from satisfying. If the U.S. were to properly forbid child marriage in every State on its own soil, it would not only have positive repercussions on the rights of girls in the US, but also abroad, as the U.S. would gain the legitimacy to ask for the ban of child marriage everywhere.

Written by : Salomé Guibreteau
Proofread by : Emilie Walczak

Sources
Gronewold, A. (2017, February 14). Advocates demand New York lawmakers outlaw child marriage. Retrieved from ABC News: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/advocates-demand-york-lawmakers-outlaw-child-marriage-45495297

HRW. (2017, February 14). US: In New York, Children as Young as 14 Can Marry. Retrieved from Human Rights Watch : https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/14/us-new-york-children-young-14-can-marry

Reiss, F. (2017, February 10). Why does the United States still let 12-year-olds get married? Retrieved from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/02/10/why-does-the-united-states-still-let-12-year-old-girls-get-married/?utm_term=.68ac257e9bb4

Unchained at Last. (2017). Child Marriage in New York. Retrieved from Unchained at Last: http://www.unchainedatlast.org/child-marriage-in-new-york/

UNICEF. (2017). What Is Child Marriage? Retrieved from Girls Not Brides: http://www.girlsnotbrides.org/about-child-marriage/

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An Increase in the Number of Accusations of Witchcraft Threatens the Life of Children

Contemporary beliefs in witchcraft still exist and have been documented in different countries in the world, including in sub-Saharan countries such as Tanzania, the Central African Republic, and Nigeria, but also in Bolivia, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Iran, Nepal, Thailand, or Saudi Arabia, and in communities in Europe and the U.S. (Hanson & Ruggiero, 2013).

The most visible manifestation of this belief is accusations of witchcraft against persons who are believed to have “the ability to harm someone through the use of mystical power” (Cimpric & WCARO, 2010). This phenomenon is not systematically reported or documented, which means that there are no reliable estimates of its extent (Hanson & Ruggiero, 2013). However, in the past 10 years, human rights reports and organizations working on this topic have reported an increase in the number of accusations of witchcraft, increasingly targeting children (Mungai, 2014).

Accusations of witchcraft are increasing over the last years

Anthropologists and organizations working on the phenomenon of witchcraft observe that accusations increase as a response to changes in society and challenges (Joselow, 2012). Thus, “social and economic pressures, including conflict, poverty, urbanization and the weakening of communities, or HIV/AIDS, seem to have contributed to the recent increase in witchcraft accusations against children” (UNICEF, 2010). Children ‘witches’ are also to blame for hardship or misfortune in the family or community – death, divorce, illness. These accusations tend to appear among communities who believe that problems in life have a spiritual origin (Safe Child Africa, n.d.). In addition, limited medical knowledge about illnesses combined with such a cultural belief system “predisposes people to look for scapegoats for who is responsible” (MacLean, 2014). Witchcraft thus provides an explanation for this misfortune and all kinds of challenges in life.

Even though the belief in witchcraft and supernatural spirits, as seen in many religions and cultural beliefs systems, is not a problem per se, it becomes an issue as the consequences can be extremely serious for those accused of witchcraft. It can lead to “acts of persecution, including psychological, emotional and physical abuse, which can eventually even lead to the death of children so accused” (Hanson & Ruggiero, 2013). Churches may play an important role in these accusations; in particular, the UNICEF has documented cases in Africa where pastors from evangelical, revivalist, or pentecostal churches have designed children as witches for financial gain, charging families huge fees to exorcise the bad spirits (Safe Child Africa, n.d.) (UNICEF, 2010) (Mungai, 2014).

Why are children accused of witchcraft?

Children can be more or less vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft depending on several factors. It can be because of a physical disability or abnormality, a mental disability or physical illness: these would include for example autistic children or epileptic children (Cimpric & WCARO, 2010). Children can be accused of witchcraft because of an unusual birth: this would include premature children, or twins (Ibid.). Orphans and children with specific behavioral traits (aggressive, lazy, withdrawn…) may also be accused of witchcraft (Ibid.). Finally, children with albinism are associated with witchcraft and “are killed because of the magic powers supposedly contained in parts of their bodies, including their organs, hair, skin and limbs” (Cimpric & WCARO, 2010).

How to stop these irrational accusations?

Several direct steps can be taken to fight accusations of witchcraft and provide protection for victims.

One of the solutions is to undertake legal reforms and ensure law enforcement. Indeed, “in several countries, witchcraft is regarded as a criminal offense; both children and adults accused of the practice can be convicted to prison sentences” (UNICEF, 2010). In some places, legislation has been put in place to end accusations of witchcraft. In 2012 in Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria, the government adopted a law that criminalizes accusations of witchcraft (DeFraia, 2012).

Another important step is to provide care and protection for the children. For example, the state of Akwa Ibom has invested in shelter and education for the children accused of witchcraft (DeFraia, 2012). Violence against children who are accused to be witches is a form of child abuse which should be addressed the same way as any form of child abuse (UNICEF, 2010).

In addition, awareness-raising about child abuse, engagement and dialogue with churches, communities, politicians, and traditional and religious leaders is also necessary to counter the negative consequences of beliefs in witchcraft and to provide a better understanding of children’s rights (DeFraia, 2012) (UNICEF, 2010).

Written by : Salomé Guibreteau
Proofread by : Lucy Autin and Petra Friedmann

Sources
Cimpric, A., & WCARO, U. (2010, April). Children Accused of Witchcraft: An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa. Retrieved from UNICEF: https://www.unicef.org/wcaro/wcaro_children-accused-of-witchcraft-in-Africa.pdf

DeFraia, D. (2012, November 1). Nigeria Introduces Law to Protect ‘Witch’ Children. Retrieved from Public Radio International: http://www.pri.org/stories/2012-11-01/nigeria-introduces-law-protect-witch-children

Hanson, D. K., & Ruggiero, D. R. (2013, July). Briefing Paper – Child Witchcraft Allegations and Human Rights. Retrieved from European Parliament: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/note/join/2013/433714/EXPO-DROI_NT(2013)433714_EN.pdf

Joselow, G. (2012, October 15). Children Accused of Witchcraft Left Vulnerable in Central African Republic. Retrieved from VOA News: http://www.voanews.com/a/children-witchcraft-central-african-republic/1527120.html

MacLean, D. (2014, October 21). Papua New Guinea’s Tragic Witch-Hunts. Retrieved from The Diplomat : http://thediplomat.com/2014/10/papua-new-guineas-tragic-witch-hunts/

Mungai, C. (2014, August 21). Child ‘Witches’ and Killings in Africa: Why the Little Ones Are Safer in Muslim than Christian Societies. Retrieved from Mail & Guardian Africa: http://mgafrica.com/article/2014-08-21-child-witches-in-africa-far-from-being-a-traditional-belief-it-is-a-modern-invention

Safe Child Africa. (n.d.). Child ‘Witches’. Retrieved from Safe Child Africa: http://www.safechildafrica.org/childwitches

UNICEF. (2010, Juillet 28). Cases of Children Accused of ‘Witchcraft’ Rising in Parts of West and Central Africa. Retrieved from UNICEF: https://www.unicef.org/protection/nigeria_55301.html

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The UN & (ex) child soldiers

20 years since Graça Machel’s report on “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children”: what input on the rehabilitation of former child soldiers?

On 9th December 2016, Humanium participated in the celebration of the 20 years mandate of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict at the United Nations.

The event was based on Graça Machel’s report related to the “Impact of armed conflict on children”. She is also known as the last wife of Nelson Mandela’s, who we all know and admire deeply.

Child soldiers’ rehabilitation should include families and communities

Since 2000, more than 115,000 child soldiers have been released, and a global norm that children should not be recruited and used in conflict, and should be protected from all other grave violations, has resulted from advocacy. Graça Machel recommended in her report that « (…) programs should aim to support healing processes and re-establish a sense of normality (…) daily routines of family and community life, opportunity for expression and structured activities such as school, play and sports ». A commendable recommendation, but only taking into account children, and not the family or the community they belong to.

That is why Humanium only partially agrees. In fact, Humanium noticed that the variety of traumas suffered by child soldiers are not only direct ones, and thus they do not only concern the child but also impact the family. Humanitarian interventions should therefore also include the family. We can feel it through our actions. Our focus in Rwanda, Madagascar and India is on strong community building throug each group we help. In doing so, we noticed that within the family and the community of the child, often the adults’ inner children suffer (as well) from their own experiences and may be traumatized too.

What if rehabilitation was linked to consciousness?

Children and communities we serve are empowered to connect with their consciousness, with these beautiful human beings who create inspiring futures from their heart. We know and have understood that « every child knows », and thus, for the psychosocial well-being of all, yes, children MUST be protected AND adults should also have the possibility to connect to their inner self, and have room for the expression of their feelings, and to learn from children and from themselves.

The children we help are waking up with the wish to help their communities, and consequently, this world, as best as they can. Their psychosocial well-being is as important a right as is their right to adequate food and drinking water.

Thank you, Arndt Soret

 

 

 

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