Ending child marriage is probably not very high on the papal agenda, but it should be. Pope Francis has taken a strong position in opposition to sex trafficking and other forms of slavery, but he has been relatively quiet about one of the most prevalent forms of slavery: child marriage.
For several centuries the Catholic Church has given official sanction to child marriage. Prior to 1917, children who had reached puberty could be married, generally recognized as age 14 for males and 12 for females. The 1917 Code of Canon Law increased the minimum age for marriage to 16 for males and 14 for female, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which remains in effect, continues those age restrictions.
As recognized by Catholic Online and other Catholic voices, it is time for the Catholic Church to "focus on the evils of child marriage." For child marriage as it is practiced in many parts of the developing world is, for all practical purposes, a form of slavery. When young girls, some as young as 8 years old, are sold off into marriage by their parents they effectively lose their freedom.
As well documented by Girls Not Brides, child marriage is matter of enormous consequence:
Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. That is 28 girls every minute -- married off too soon, endangering their personal development and wellbeing. With more young people on our planet than ever before, child marriage is a human rights violation that we must end to achieve a fairer future for all.
Child brides are often disempowered, dependent on their husbands and deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety. Neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers, child brides are at greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty.
Nations also feel the impact: a system that undervalues the contribution of young women limits its own possibilities. In this way, child marriage drains countries of the innovation and potential that would enable them to thrive.
In addition to being a violation of human rights, child marriage is a major contributor to the high fertility rates that prevail in highly impoverished countries like Niger and Afghanistan. Globally, an estimated 90 percent of adolescent pregnancies take place within the institution of marriage, and in some parts of the developing world today, the rate of adolescent pregnancy is actually on the rise.
Child marriage is also a killer, as pregnancy and child birth are one of the leading causes of death for adolescent girls in the developing world. In areas where child marriage practices are common, it is not uncommon for young married girls to develop an obstetric fistula as a result of an early pregnancy. If not treated, the condition can lead to chronic incontinence and, as a consequence, being ejected from home and village.
In many parts of the developing world today, Catholic leaders are actively working to end the practice of child marriage. They see it as the evil that it is. It is time for Pope Francis to do so as well.
The U.S. Congress has acted already. In 2013, as part of a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, Congress approved an amendment that directs the US Secretary of State to "establish and implement a multi-year, multi-sectoral strategy to prevent child marriage." Among other things, it requires the State Department to include the rate of child marriage in its country status reports on human rights.
But even more than Congress, Pope Francis may be in position to actually do something about child marriage. As one of the most influential voices in the world, he could make a major contribution to the eradication of child marriage. Let's pray he does.