Girls Count; Count Girls

June 12, 2018 — On this World Day Against Child Labour, we remember the millions of girls in child “marriages” who have been missing for decades from global statistics and told by the international community that their forced labour doesn’t count. 
We can speculate as to why it never occurred to past generations of statisticians to count the sometimes deadly and always life-constricting work of “married” girls as child labour. But the world has evolved, and excuses have long since expired. The international community no longer writes off child “marriage” as a regrettable practice. Each one of the millions of bogus “weddings” to minors arranged each year is a crime. Activists have thoroughly researched and successfully exposed the devastating impact that “marriage” has on girls’ social, emotional, psychological, and physical health and wellbeing. There is no longer any doubt that it damages the underaged girls’ young bodies and puts them at imminent risk of the early pregnancies that so often result in the death of the infant or mother or both. The social acceptance of the practice in jurisdictions where it is illegal not only condones but normalizes statutory rape. Far from cause to celebrate, the typical betrothal of an underaged girl marks the end of her prospects for self-determination, for formal education, for employment of her own choosing, for financial independence, and for control over her sexual and reproductive life.  
The reality of day-to-day life for many of these girls is one of servitude. They carry out all the household chores, perform demanding agricultural work, cook with fire and heavy pots of boiling water over unventilated cookstoves. They work from dusk until dawn, waking at night to breastfeed, tend to sick kids, and care for elders.
And what is the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) criteria for the worst forms of child labour? Work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous or harmful to children; work that exposes children to physical or sexual abuse; work that forces children to work long hours, unreasonably confines them to the premises, and could result in a child’s death, injury, illness or disability. The overlap between the two lists is clear, so why are so many child “marriages” still excluded from the ILO's child labour statistics?
Modern understanding of the true nature of child marriage must now be reflected in the ILO’s statistics on child labour. And the very first step the ILO can take is to start counting every illegal “marriage” as child labour. Three facts form the logical, ethical, legal, rights-based argument:
First, when a marriage is illegal in the country in which it occurred, then by definition a child cannot consent to this unlawful act. Without consent, it is a forced marriage. 
Second, when a “marriage” is forced, everything derived from it also lacks consent and is also forced. As the ILO’s 2017 Report on Modern Slavery and Forced Marriage states, “a forced labour situation is determined by the nature of the relationship between a person and an ‘employer’ and not by the type of activity performed[.]”[i] Without consent, any labour at all performed by a minor in her so-called spouse’s household is forced labour, whether it’s physically demanding work fit only for adults or light chores such as housecleaning. (Engaging in sexual intercourse with a minor who is legally unable to consent is a grievous separate but related crime.)
And third, ILO Convention 182 defines the worst forms of child labour as including “all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as […] forced or compulsory labour.”[ii]
The dots simply need connecting: A marriage to a minor who is too young to give her legal consent is by definition a forced marriage, creating a non-consensual relationship between a child and the man posing illegally as her “spouse,” which results in a forced labour situation. Forced labour is a worst form of child labour. Therefore, child marriage is child labour. 
AIDS-Free World concurs that anyone under 18 should be defined as a minor child, but we also recognize that the Convention on the Rights of the Child left it to individual governments to set the age at which a child becomes an adult and can legally consent. As a first step, while advocates for children work to raise the age of majority to 18 in every country, it must be acknowledged that any “marriage” to a child who is too young to consent under her or his country’s existing laws is, by definition, in a forced marriage that results in child labour. 
There is no need to change any treaties or conventions. The legal basis for finally beginning to count child marriage as a worst form of child labour is solidly in place. 
Why do ILO statistics matter? Because bad data makes bad policy, and vice versa. Undercounting the number of girls forced into child labour by omitting all those at work within illegal “marriages” is discriminatory. It means that critical resources, policies, and programmes are being misallocated.  Persons who are genuinely devoted to ending child labour worldwide are unaware that their goal cannot be reached unless we also end child marriage. Recent studies estimate that of the 12 million child marriages that take place every year,[iii] at least 7.5 million are illegal in the countries where they occur. [iv] This means that a minimum of 7.5 million girls are missing from each year’s estimated total of child labourers, rendering the data inaccurate and skewing policy decisions. 
It takes strength to abandon old habits and outdated perspectives; it takes courage to agree to a recount that will put the ILO farther from the finish line of eliminating child labour worldwide. The world needs that strength and that courage from the International Labour Organization. More important, and more urgent, so do millions upon millions of girls hidden in plain sight. 

[i] Global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labour and forced marriage, International Labour Office (ILO), Geneva, 2017, pg. 16,

[ii] International Labour Organization (ILO), Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, C182, 17 June 1999, Article 3,

[iii] UNICEF Press Release, 2 million child marriages prevented in last decade due to accelerated progress, according to new UNICEF estimates, 2 March 2018.

[iv] Wodon, Quentin T.; Tavares, Paula Magarinos Torres; Fiala, Oliver; Nestour, Alex Le; Wise, Lisa. 2017. Ending child marriage: child marriage laws and their limitations (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group, P. 5,


(Photo: Alexandra Lande /