Child Marriage as a Contemporary Form of Slavery

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), child marriage is any marriage whereby at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age. Most child marriages are forced marriages in which one or both of the parties have not expressed their free or full consent to enter the union. Child marriage is undisputedly a human rights violation and it disproportionately affects girls who are often married off to older men, sometimes as part of culture and tradition.

The causes of child marriage are as varied and multifarious as there are countries and cultures in the world. Some of the most common causes are poverty, conflict, lack of education, traditional patriarchal norms, and legal pluralism, among others. The United Nations reports that one in five girls is married before the age of 18 worldwide. This figure doubles in some of the world’s developing countries, where 40% of girls are married before age 18 and 12% before age 15. 


Kenya’s Samburu community is one example of where slavery and child marriage intersect. In the community, a beading ceremony is the main driver of child, early, and forced marriages. This ceremony is an abhorrent practice during which young, uncircumcised girls, as young as six, are given beads by an older, male ‘warrior’ suitor as a temporary engagement. This gives the man license to have sexual intercourse with the girl, as long as he keeps bringing gifts to the girl’s parents. Essentially, the man pays to rape the young girl, who becomes his sex slave, while her consent in the matter is never considered. As the man appeases the girl’s family, they build him a hut in the homestead, where he can access the girl whenever he desires.

Uncircumcised girls are still considered immature. Therefore, they are not allowed to get pregnant during this ‘engagement’ period despite the culture banning the use of any form of contraception. In the likely event that pregnancy does occur, the young girls are forced to go through traditional abortions or infanticides – both are physically and psychologically detrimental.

Young Samburu girls shackled by the beads of bondage
Source: Nimrod Gachare Photography


Article 1 of the 1926 Slavery Convention defines slavery as:

“[T]he status or condition of a person over whom any or all the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”.

By definition, child marriages are considered forced marriages, i.e. they lack the consent of one of the parties. As illustrated by the UN, “forced marriages are marriages in which one and/or both parties have not personally expressed their full and free consent to the union. A child marriage is considered to be a form of forced marriage, given that one and/or both parties have not expressed full, free and informed consent”.

Child marriages in many countries are often carried out without the genuine consent of the child. The major perpetrators of child marriage do not consider existing legislation or the limited exceptions usually provided for, which include special permission granted by the responsible legal authority or official written consent. Even with allegations of consent, children as young as 12 are too immature to give genuine, informed consent, disproving any claims to that effect.

From the onset of child marriages, there is a clear power difference between the non-consenting child and the much older adult party. In most cases, girl brides lose their right to self-actualization and are under the full ownership and control of their male partners. These girls are dominated and abused in multiple ways, such as physical violence from their husband and his relatives, sexual violence and rape, and excessive domestic labor, which, in some cases, amounts to servitude. Child marriage, therefore, encompasses a violation of numerous human rights, including the right to education, the right to enter marriage with free and full consent, freedom from servitude, and freedom of thought and expression.   


The fact that most children have no say in entering or leaving these marriages freely has led contemporary slavery scholars to conclude that, in many cases, forced child marriage amounts to a contemporary form of slavery. Catherine Turner of Anti-Slavery International provides three criteria to determine if child marriage amounts to slavery:

  1. “If the child has not genuinely given their free and informed consent to enter the marriage.”
  2. “If the child is subject to control and a sense of ownership in the marriage itself, particularly through abuse and threats, and is exploited by being forced to undertake domestic chores within the marital home or labour outside it, and/or engage in non-
    consensual sexual relations.”
  3. “If the child cannot realistically leave or end the marriage, leading potentially to a lifetime of slavery.”

These criteria are often met in cases where the girls are younger than 16 and married off to someone significantly older, sometimes as old as 80. As highlighted by Kenya’s Samburu beading ceremony, the girl could be as young as six when the rights to her body are given to older men. 


To illustrate a documented case in which child marriage could be described as slavery, VICE News interviewed a young child bride and her older husband in the Central African Republic. Twelve-year-old Benecia is married to 46-year-old Tchari Koibe. She has to take care of him and his ten-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

In the video, Benicia explicitly admits she is in the marriage outside her volition and consent;

“I couldn’t refuse, I had to obey. I don’t want to stay here.”

Benicia has to undertake domestic chores, such as cooking, cleaning, and selling in the market each night. She expresses wanting to leave but not being able to, which could potentially lead to a lifetime of servitude and rape under Koibe’s domination.

Source: VICE News

Repugnantly, Koibe acknowledges that he has total control and ownership over Benicia, implied by his statement:

“When you marry a young woman, you can educate her in your own way”.

This statement illustrates not only his control over Benicia but also his awareness of that control. While watching the video, it is impossible to discount how child marriage could be regarded as a contemporary form of slavery, as defined by Catherine Turner’s three criteria. Unfortunately, Benicia is only one of the thousands of girls trapped in slavery in her country and all over the world.


Although this area of study is relatively novel, it is impossible to disregard the relationship between child, early, and forced marriages, and contemporary slavery.

Child marriage can no longer be treated lightly or simply discounted as being part of a given culture. Child marriage violates the human rights of the children involved and, as seen in the highlighted case, breaches one of the key, non-derogable international law norms: the prohibition of slavery.

  • Although legal pluralism often offers recourse to justice in developing countries through the accessibility and affordability of informal justice systems, it is often the main cause of child marriage in the same countries.
    • Does legal pluralism, therefore, bring more harm than good?
  • Should all exceptions to marriage under the age of 18 be done away with universally, or should it vary on a country-by-country basis?
  • Should the link between climate change and increasing rates of child marriage be used as the main strategic consideration in the efforts to fight child marriage, especially in the most affected places, such as parts of Sub-Saharan Africa?

Suggested Further Reading

Sarich, Jody, et al. (2016). “Forced Marriage, Slavery, and Plural Legal Systems: An African Example.” Human Rights Quarterly, 38, 2016.

Scarpa, Silvia (2018). “Contemporary forms of slavery.” Directorate General for External Policies of the Union, Police Department – European Parliament, December, 2018.

Wadekar, Neha (2020). “Kenya is trying to end child marriage. But climate change is putting more young girls at risk.” TIME, 12 August, 2020.

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Child Marriage as a Conte…

by The New Global Order time to read: 5 min