When you think of a blushing bride, dressed in white with her face veiled, it’s fair to say that most of us would think of someone who was at least old enough to legally enter a bar and get served. Seeing a mere child dressed in such a manner in preparation for her own marriage is undeniably disturbing, but surprisingly common around the world. Although there are laws in place throughout the western world to prevent child marriages, there are still many girls under the age of 16 in unofficial cohabiting relationships even in countries such as the USA and UK.
Sadly, in certain developing regions, a child bride is much closer to the norm than the extraordinary. Dated, but still relevant, data collated by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) lists five countries where the percentage of girls getting married before the age of 18 is over 60 percent: Central African Republic (61), Guinea (63), Bangladesh (66), Chad (72) and Niger (75). In many countries, child marriage is seen as acceptable and even routine, with old customs such as swara (Pakistan, Afghanistan), vani (Pakistan) and baad (Pakistan, Afghanistan) allowing a feud or crime to be settled with the exchange of a young virgin bride, who can be aged as young as four years old.
There are cases of baby girls being betrothed as newborns, but these have not been included as they were not actually married until much later. For example, Joan of France (who married King Louis XII in 1476 at the age of 12) was promised to the French throne only eight days after she was born. Wedding contracts between aristocratic and royal families were common in the days of constant feuding and struggling for land and power.
The names on this list are some particularly high profile and glaring examples of this controversial practice – which Amnesty International has pointed to as a human rights violation, violating sexual and reproductive rights – although some instances listed below are historical and occurred for political purposes. The sad truth is that many young girls are married off at horrifyingly young ages and their plights will never be revealed, due to the remoteness of the area they live in and the cultural subjectivity which surrounds the practice. The effects of child marriage on a young bride are invariably negative. The difference in age between a bride and her future husband can be, at times, considerable, leaving the girl susceptible to abuse and neglect. Rights are often ignored, access to education is removed and there are considerable health and social concerns, such as the risk of death during childbirth and sexual abuse. Although there are groups and organizations pushing for more education in regard to child marriage, and pressuring governments to change laws to help protect children, the fact remains that there are an estimated 57.5 million child brides in the world (many of them being in India). Clearly, there’s a significant amount of work to be done before this contentious practice becomes a thing of the past.
5. Nujood Ali: 10 years old
The disturbing fact about this entry on our list is that at the young age of 10, Nujood Ali is actually much older than many girls who are routinely forced into child marriage. There are examples of eight-year-olds getting married in Afghanistan, Yemen, Polynesia and Pakistan, with slightly older girls being forced into marriage in many countries in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Oceania. It has been estimated that by 2020 there could be over 140 million child brides in the world, a disturbing figure which highlights the plight of girls and young women in developing areas.
However, this brave young woman has become renowned due to her rebellion against the life she was pressured into. Ali is from Yemen, a country notorious for its lax laws on child marriage. She was “bought” from her family by a man in his thirties, who proceeded to abuse her after their marriage in 2008. Ali sought refuge and within months managed to secure a divorce from her abusive husband, making her a divorcee at the age of 10.
Unfortunately, there is no happy ending for Ali at the moment. She wrote her memoirs which became a success, but apparently her father took most of the royalties sent to the family for himself and plans to marry off Ali’s younger sister. Both her father and her ex-husband saw no harm in the act of marrying the ten year old off. However, the young girl still hopes to become a lawyer one day and may help change Yemen’s serious gender inequality issues.
4. Margaret Beaufort: 7 years old
Marrying off young girls, often for political or financial gain, has been a common practice carried out throughout history, as demonstrated by the top three places on this list. Margaret Beaufort was born into English nobility in 1443 and was married to John de la Pole in 1450; both bride and groom were just seven.
There are some that believe she might have been married off in 1444, when she was just one! However, it’s more likely the wedding took place in 1450, and it was annulled in 1453. Margaret went on to marry Edmund Tudor, and they were the parents of King Henry VII. She was also the grandmother of one of England’s most famous kings, Henry VIII.
3. Aisha: 6 years old
Islamic tradition states that Aisha was either six or seven years old when she married Muhammad. Aisha bint Abi Bakr is believed to have married the prophet in 619, when Muhammad would have been around 49 years old. The marriage was not consummated until several years later, when the girl was 10. She stayed married to the religious leader until his death, in 632.
2. Anne de Mowbray: 5 years old
Another English political marriage from the 15th century takes a place on this list, demonstrating how acceptable child marriages once were in the history of the western world. Anne had a tragic life; born in December 1472, her father, John de Mowbray (the 4th Duke of Norfolk), died in 1476 when she was just three. In 1478, the five-year-old was married to another child, the four-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury (Duke of York and son of King Edward IV).
The marriage was short and woeful: Anne died in 1481 at the age of eight and her husband, Richard, later became famous as one of the Princes in the Tower. The nine-year-old boy spent the rest of his life in the Tower of London and is presumed to have been murdered at a young age on the orders of his ruthless uncle, Richard III.
1. Fatima Mangre: 4 years old
Fatima Mangre is an Indian girl who was married off in 2009 at the tender age of just four years old. Mangre was married to a boy who was only 10 years old himself; she lived with her family until aged eight, when her husband came to collect her. However, the marriage was annulled after Fatima’s father had a change of heart and refused to let her husband take the child, making her the youngest divorcee in the world at the age of eight. Fatima’s father went on to blame social pressure as the reason for his reckless decision to allow the marriage in the first place.
Although three of the places on this list are occupied by child brides who were married centuries ago, the issue of child marriage is a modern one. Uneducated, poverty-stricken or peer-driven parents are forcing their children into marriage, unaware of the potentially fatal consequences. Girls under the age of 15 who become pregnant are five times more likely to die due to complications in childbirth than women in their 20s, and the human rights issues of choice and sexual freedom are ever-present concerns around this unfortunately ongoing practice.