Recent reports of the brutal rape of two girls in India, aged four and five, have rightfully spurred protests and condemnations in that country and around the world. Yet in India and elsewhere, sexual violence against young girls is not only tolerated, but celebrated, when it is given another name: marriage.
Child marriage is a global epidemic that occurs across regions, cultures, and religions. The number of women married as children is staggering: the United Nations estimates that one in three women aged 20 to 24 was married under the age of 18. Many of these women were even younger at the time of their marriage: nearly five million girls are married under the age of 15 every year, or about 13,000 per day. Some are married as young as 8 or 9 years old. In India, which accounts for 40 percent of the world's known child brides, child marriages are still celebrated en masse; this tradition is also pervasive elsewhere in South Asia, across Sub-Saharan Africa, and in parts of Latin America and the Middle East.
Child marriage is undoubtedly a violation of human rights. This practice truncates girls' education, robs them of their economic potential, and endangers their health. It also exposes young girls to intolerable sexual violence and abuse, often at the hands of much older men: one study in India showed that those married as girls report twice as many instances of beatings and threats by their husbands, and three times as many instances of rape, as women married as adults.