What's the relationship between child marriage & HIV/AIDS?

Child marriage intersects with one of the other major challenges facing young people - HIV/AIDS. Our newest blogger Yunah explains how important it is to recognise the relationship between the 2 if we wish to tackle both...

For a long time now, efforts to fight against child marriages have been put in place, laws have been enacted and acts drafted - but having done all that, the world need to come up with a global  minimum age for  marriage which will act  as an important tool  to help those working to dissuade families and communities from marrying off their daughters at an early age.

This will not only help children to have education opportunities and protect them from sexual exploitation, but is an important measure in the fight against HIV/AIDS .

Child marriage is a human rights issue

Girls in Ghana perform Drama on challenges of living with hiv (Credit: Plan / Jane Hahn)

Girls in Ghana perform Drama on challenges of living with hiv (Credit: Plan / Jane Hahn)

In The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, UNICEF defines child marriage as marriage before the age of eighteen. The practice is considered as a violation of human rights.

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1959 pledges that ”mankind  owes  to the child the best it has to give, and that this entails special protection as well as  education opportunities and  facilities”. It's problematic then, that girls as young as 13-15 are forced into marriage, losing their education opportunities as well as being exploited sexually by older men.

Differences in terms of ages of consent among societies is still a leading factor in preventing the  total eradication of child marriage. Some societies consider 18 years as the minimum age of marriage, while others agree that children under the age of 16 can marry with the permission of Sharia authorities.

According to customs - mainly African - the minimum age is 15. Yet the Convention on the Rights of the Child discourages marriage before the age of 16. These differences are a clear indicator that there is no international consensus on the minimum age of marriage.

Early marriage & HIV: what's the connection?

As well as being a human rights issue, early marriage puts girls’ health at risk as it compromises their ability to negotiate for safer sex, putting them at a higher risk of HIV – on top of this, the husbands of married girls are almost 3 times more likely to be HIV-positive than are boyfriends of single girls.

According to UNAIDS, in 2010 young people aged 15–24 accounted for 42% of new HIV infections in people aged 15 and older, and nearly 80% of young people living with HIV live in Sub-Saharan Africa. There is a low awareness of Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) among young girls, hence they are also more prone to the sexually transmitted infections, among them HIV. Young girls are at higher risk, as their genital tracts are immature and more prone to invasion by sexually transmitted infections.

Moving forward - biological & social factors

A lot of interventions are being put in place to make sure no one is left behind in the UNAIDS strategy of eradicating AIDS by 2030, but if  societies continue to force their young girls  into marriage then eradicating AIDS  will be a  cumbersome task. 

Having said this, it’s equally clear that as countries continue to strengthen their commitment to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it’s important that that the vulnerability of young women and girls should not only be explained in biological factors.

Rigid social norms restrict women from accessing medication which further detriments the lives of these young girls. We need to look at the gender inequalities that exist in our societies which are acting as the driving force behind child marriage, and increasing the difficulty of eradicating HIV.