October 10, 2017 – It’s hard to believe that anything as harmless-sounding as “household chores” could spell the difference between life and death. But that simple phrase keeps tens of millions of endangered girls out of sight, erased from the global statistics on child labour. The UN agency that deals with decent work for all, the International Labour Organization (ILO), reports that 17 million more boys than girls spend their formative years doing work that’s hazardous to their safety, health, development, and well-being.
If that huge gender imbalance seems unbelievable, that’s because it isn’t true. The ILO’s labour statistics do include girls who perform domestic work—paid or unpaid—in other people’s homes, but they do not include girls who do the same work in their own homes. Cleaning for a neighbor counts as domestic service in a third-party household; cleaning your own home counts as a household chore. So far, so good.
But from there, the ILO’s reasoning takes a nose-dive from logical to discriminatory—and dangerous, and deadly. In the time it takes to say “I now pronounce you man and wife” during a fraudulent, unlawful ceremony between an adult man and an underaged girl, the ILO decides that everything must change for that girl. The man’s home becomes her home. Her domestic service is reclassified as household chores in her own home. Child abuse is reclassified as “marriage.” Child rape is reclassified as conjugal relations.
The adults in that girl’s life have eliminated any choices she may have made about her future. The ILO has eliminated any trace of that child—along with millions just like her, each year—from its global statistics.
Scientific data about cognitive and physical development illustrate the need to prevent early marriage. Child rights advocates—ironically, first spurred on by UN agencies—have worked for decades to persuade all countries to define “the child” as the Convention on the Rights of the Child does: as a person below the age of 18. But, for political expedience, to ensure that an important Convention would come into force in 1990, its drafters felt the need to add, “unless the laws of a particular country set the legal age for adulthood younger.” Although progress has been steady, too many countries still have laws allowing marriage to girls younger than 18.
The ILO, absurdly, seems unconcerned about sovereign countries’ laws or child experts’ wisdom regardless of whether the legal age has been set at 18 or younger: Every year, millions of illicit weddings take place before girls reach the legal age of consent in their countries, and the ILO treats all those criminal arrangements as though they were legitimate marriages.
There’s simply no way to rationalize the ILO’s determination to render invisible the tens of millions of girls who are ensnared in child labour at any given moment, including the thousands who’ll be “married” today, oblivious to the International Day of the Girl Child.
So far, it hasn’t made any difference to point out that the working and living conditions of a girl in an illegal “marriage” match, point for point, the ILO’s own definitions for the worst form of child labour. The work she is compelled to do almost invariably interferes with her schooling. It always unreasonably confines her to the premises of her employer. It could, and often does, result in the child’s injury, illness, or death. And the work demanded of an underaged “wife” exposes the child to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.
While she’s still underage, the “marriage” is illegal. The unique distinguishing characteristic of this particularly heinous form of child labour is the fact that its consequences and its conditions are irreversible. Although young boys suffer terribly doing onerous work such as hauling bricks or weaving rugs, they may take some comfort in knowing that they won’t necessarily be bound to that labour for life. But young girls conscripted by adult men into child “marriages”—every one of which, by definition, begins with ritual child abuse—are locked into those demeaning, subservient relationships permanently. ‘Til death do us part. Governments and cultures that allow the harmful practice to persist do so with the full knowledge that these bogus marriages are life sentences. And that often, they’re life sentences cut short by premature death.
Time and again, the ILO has been alerted to what the rest of the UN says about the serious, and often deadly, long-term repercussions of child marriage. For instance, the World Health Organization declares that “girls married young are more vulnerable to intimate partner violence and sexual abuse than those who marry later,” and UNFPA warns that “complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls,” and that “child marriage robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects.” And data from UNAIDS, of which the ILO is a co-sponsor, makes the case: “…the HIV infection rate among married adolescents is 50% higher than that among their unmarried, sexually active peers…”
Surely, the ILO wouldn’t publicly challenge its sister agencies’ data or expertise. No doubt, the ILO understands that it is obligated to protect children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. No question, the ILO knows that no UN agency is exempt from upholding the principles of gender equality and anti-discrimination.
So, why the cognitive dissonance within the UN? The part of the United Nations that has assumed responsibility for measuring and eliminating child labour simply isn’t listening. On this International Day of the Girl Child, for the sake of millions of disappeared girls whose screams aren’t getting through, let’s break the bureaucratic sound barrier. Let’s declare in one united voice to the ILO: Child marriage IS child labour.
 International Labour Organization (ILO). “Global estimates of child labour: Results and trends, 2012-2016” P.38
 Hampton, Tracy. (Reprinted) JAMA, August 4, 2010—Vol.304, No.5, P.509-510.
 For a complete definition of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, see Article 3, ILO Convention 182, or visit the ILO’s website http://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/WorstFormsofChildLabour/lang--en/index.htm, and for definitions of hazardous child labour, visit http://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/WorstFormsofChildLabour/Hazardouschildlabour/lang--en/index.htm.
 WHO Joint News Release. “Child marriages: 39 000 every day” 7 March 2013 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2013/child_marriage_20130307/en/
 United Nations Population Fund Press Release. “UNFPA Announces $20 Million Commitment to Reach Most Marginalised Adolescent Girls at Risk of Child Marriage.” 11 October 2012. http://www.friendsofunfpa.org/netcommunity/page.aspx?pid=1340
 2016 UNAIDS High-Level Meeting. "Women and girls-Snapshot" P.2 http://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/women-girls_snapshot_en.pdf